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M. S. Swaminathan, Scientist Who Helped Conquer Famine in India, Dies at 98

M.S. Swaminathan, the well-known crop geneticist who combined plant breeding science with administrative skills to increase crop yields and transform India into one of the world’s leading producers of wheat and rice, passed away on Thursday in Chennai, India at the age of 98. His daughter Nitya Rao confirmed his death.

Dr. Swaminathan, often referred to as the father of India’s Green Revolution, played a crucial role in preventing famine and feeding millions of people through his research and training programs aimed at teaching farmers how to cultivate more productive varieties of wheat and rice. Over his long and illustrious career spanning more than seven decades, Dr. Swaminathan worked in various agricultural research institutes and government agencies, both in India and internationally. He also served on advisory boards and prestigious commissions in numerous countries.

The turning point in Dr. Swaminathan’s career came in the early 1960s when he learned about the high yields of new and sturdier wheat varieties being tested in Mexico by American scientist Norman E. Borlaug. Driven by his determination, Dr. Swaminathan invited Dr. Borlaug to India, leading to a successful partnership where they crossbred Borlaug’s strains with other wheat varieties, resulting in a golden-colored flour favored by Indians.

Dr. Swaminathan’s leadership and efforts in the field of crop science and food production were widely recognized and appreciated. In 1987, he received the first World Food Prize, established by Dr. Borlaug himself. His contributions to improving world food supply and promoting sustainable agricultural practices have earned him over 100 significant honors and awards from India and around the world.

Despite facing criticism in his career, mainly from rival scientists and environmental groups, Dr. Swaminathan remained committed to promoting safer and sustainable agricultural practices. He advocated for the “evergreen revolution,” a system of farming that is ecologically safer and affordable for small farmers, with an emphasis on land and water management.

Dr. Swaminathan’s legacy will continue through the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, which he established with the funds from the World Food Prize. The foundation, based in Chennai, applies science and technology to support women and rural development.

Born in 1925 in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, Dr. Swaminathan was the son of a renowned surgeon and educator. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he switched his studies from medicine to agriculture in response to the Bengal famine in 1946. Dr. Swaminathan obtained his Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Cambridge and dedicated his life to agricultural research and public service.

Dr. Swaminathan’s death marks the end of an era in crop science and agricultural development. He will be remembered as a visionary who pioneered the Green Revolution in India, saving millions of lives from starvation and transforming the country’s agricultural landscape.