The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World's Harvest

By Francis, Charles | NACTA Journal, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World's Harvest


Francis, Charles, NACTA Journal


The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World's Harvest By Susan Dworkin, 2009, Walker & Company, NY, hard cover, $26.00, 229 pages, ISBN 0-8027-1740-3

This is a story of passion, the unfolding drama of one scientist's dedication to his work and his personal contributions to feeding the hungry of the world. Danish plant breeder Bent Skovmand drew early encouragement from two major role models in his field, first from plant pathologist E. C. Stakeman at University of Minnesota and later from Norman Borlaug at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico. From these giants in science, Skovmand developed his own unswerving quest to improving cereal yields that would help farmers, especially in the developing world, and through them to feed people. This was a lifelong dedication that ended too soon with his early death, and the biography serves as a lasting tribute to Skovmand's work. The book is also an impressive model of what an astute and thorough biographer can do in telling a thrilling story of an ambitious and committed scientist.

More than a chronicle of his several professional positions in the international arena of crop improvement, this superb story by Susan Dworkin delves into Skovmand's family history, his early work on the farm, and his studies at University of Minnesota. There is vivid description of his series of unlikely moves from Denmark to the US. to Mexico to Turkey, back to Mexico and then to Sweden, as well as an untold number of trips collecting germplasm and working with cereal scientists around the world. The biography is a story of a scientist, but also a description of a personal journey through successes and defeats, the challenges of zealous dedication, and the exacting toll of travel and life style of international research on relationships, families, and health. Having worked in a similar international center (CIAT) for seven years, I can personally attest to the validity of the biographer's observations of people and families.

Ms. Dworkin describes the arrival of Bent Skovmand in CIMMYT as a post-doctoral researcher where Skovmand quickly fell under the influence of Borlaug and colleague Glenn Anderson. He worked on Triticale, one of few human-made cereals, that is a hybrid of wheat and rye. He later moved into other responsibilities with the wheat breeding program. The complex history of wheat improvement provided here gives the reader a rich background within which we can place the breeder's contributions. His dedication to practical results and open access to the world's germplasm was formed in part by an experience in a Danish folk high school, where he added broader experience to his personal farm background and participated in what could be called the democratization of Danish farming.

Shortly after his divorce and new marriage with a colleague in Mexico, Skovmand moved to Turkey, the center of origin of wheat, to work with the national breeding program and continue to take dangerous collecting missions in the field. …

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