A specter stalked the world in the 1960s: the looming threat of mass starvation. As populations grew in the postwar years, farmers failed to keep pace--until the arrival of a humble plant scientist named Norman Borlaug.
In 1944, Borlaug--who died Sept. 12 at the age of 95--joined the Rockefeller Foundation's effort to conquer hunger in Mexico. At the time, agricultural researchers were enhancing crop yields by bombing plants with nitrogen fertilizer. But they eventually discovered that the process made seed heads grow so big they would collapse in the field. Nature seemed to have hit a wall.
In 1953, however, Borlaug found a wheat strain with a unique genetic trait: the stalk became stubby, but the seed heads would stay large. When Borlaug transferred the gene into tropical wheat, he created a plant that could yield huge heads of grain while maintaining stable growth rates. Using Borlaug's seeds, farmers could produce four times as much wheat per acre. The discovery ignited the Green Revolution that helped eradicate famine in much of the world and earned Borlaug the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. His work saved hundreds of millions of lives, and today half the world eats grains descended from his plants.