The story of Lysenkoism is a cautionary tale. In the early days of the Soviet Union a scientist named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko committed a fraud that brought terrible harm to that country’s scientific community. He claimed that he could increase crop yields for the starving populous by applying agricultural methods that ignored standard scientific principles. Despite the illogical nature of his ideas, Lysenko found favor with the Communist government, and rose to a position that afforded him great power. His reign of terror brought misery and death to a number of respected Soviet scientists.

As a young agronomist, Lysenko studied the effects of temperature on crop growth. With the Soviet agricultural system in crisis, and famine raging, Lysenko recognized an opportunity, and seized it. In 1928, he publicly took credit for a technique called vernalization, which used humidity and low temperatures to grow wheat. He claimed that future generations of wheat plants would inherit the traits acquired through his application of vernalization. Scientifically, the idea was preposterous, a violation of the basic tenets of Mendelian inheritance, the scientifically accepted theory that accounts for the transmission of inherited traits from one generation to the next, and still the linchpin of modern genetics. The preeminent geneticist of the time was Nikolai Vavilov, who used accepted methods based on Mendelian principles in his attempt to increase crop yields. The method involved mating many varieties of wheat, and choosing the best as breeding stock for the next generation of plants. The approach made sense, but the process was slow, with only gradual improvement in crop yields over time.

Lysenko claimed he could produce rapid and astronomical improvement in crop yields using the vernalization method. His theories were destined for failure, but the political climate of that era favored a man like Lysenko, who came from a poor family. Communism was the result of revolution by the working class. Scientists like Vavilov, who came from wealthy families, were labeled by Lysenko as “fly-lovers and people haters”. By mocking traditional scientists and their methodical methods, Lysenko gained favor with Stalin, and later Kruschev. Lysenkoism guaranteed that nature could be easily manipulated.

Lysenko ascended the hierarchy of the Soviet communist government, and was eventually made director of the Institute of Genetics. In this position, he denounced other scientists, asserting that their objective was the ruination of the Soviet economy. Genetic researchers were required to conform to Lysenko’s views, and those not in agreement faced arrest, or execution. Many died, including Vavilov, in prison, in 1943. Still, some brave scientists continued to experiment, despite the danger. His theories began to lose favor during the 1950s, because the large crop yields he predicted never came to fruition; however, Lysenkoism was not repudiated until after the fall of Kruschhev.

Thirty or so years of Lysenkoism did serious damage to Soviet science. Under Lysenko’s influence, genetics was declared a “bourgeois pseudoscience”, when it was his own theories that actually represented bogus science. Soviet geneticists who did not agree to undertake useless endeavors were labeled heretics, simply because Soviet dictators favored Lysenko. Once Lysenkoism had been thoroughly rejected, the Soviet geneticists who had been persecuted were exonerated, some posthumously. The lesson of Lysenkoism is that scientific discovery cannot flourish without an open exchange of ideas, and freedom to disagree. Political favoritism will not alter the laws of science and nature, and truth can never be politicized.


Tamarin, Robert. Principles of Genetics. McGraw-Hill, 1999.