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The scientists who starved to death surrounded by food (amusingplanet.com)
348 points by classichasclass 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

Agriculture Scientists are really heroes of the 20th century.

1. In statistics max likelihood method was developed and used to great effect and continues to this day, was developed by Fisher[1]

2. Norman Borlaug saved India and Pakistan from famine in the midst of literally a war that is worthy of a movie[2].

[1] https://projecteuclid.org/euclid.ss/1030037906 [2] https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/green-giant-6389547

Ouch Borlaug saves millions from starvation and revolutionizes agricultural and no one knows his name. Oh well, he knew what he accomplished, the other scientists seem to hold him in high regard, and I'm sure he was able to live comfortably.

Actually he saved over a billion lives. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Not exactly a nobody.


Sadly today this wouldn’t have worked out as well. Dwarf wheat which was created by irradiating seeds would’ve been tarnished by the anti-GMO crowd just like what happened to golden rice.

It seems that uneducated people who can afford $19 avocados are the only ones who we listen to these days when it comes to feeding the planet.


In terms of people who accomplished great things but were never recognized for it in their lifetimes you can find a lot sadder stories than a man who won the Nobel Prize.

West Wing fans know his name. There are more than a few of us.

He taught himself 15 languages so that he could speak with native farmers.

For me, this line sums up the dedication of the founder of this seed bank. He traveled extensively and worked tirelessly.

It bothers me that this whole thing is news to me.

To some extend. In a way, it’s really heartening that there’s enough of these people that I can keep reading about new ones over the course of my life.

I think the OP point is about e.g. you and me most likely knowing about Kim Kardashian though never having an intention to so to speak :D

Can't fall to mention that biological collections are routinely treated and coated with poisons to deter rodents and insects, so, even if they come from edible species, aren't edible in itself.

This means that in a post-apocaliptic scenery you coulnd't just go to a museum and eat safely a butterfly collection or an herbarium, not matter how hungry you are. Would be also really silly to save uncoated valuable seeds in the fortress of solitude when the first human finding it would need to consume the seeds just to stay alive and be able to return home with the seeds. If not done yet, we should probably store an alternative source of food and fat in the same place to be eaten by the future scouts before allowing them to enter in the real collection.

wow... this is one of the saddest and beautiful stories that i'll ever read why don't they talk about stuff like that on schools? history would be a lot more interesting, to discuss about facts like that and just evolve... i'm really new(18) and when i see People talking st to my generation i can't help but keep quiet and accept it is true... i feel like stuff need to change... the world has a lot of students but a tiny amount of learners

Wish more people your age were as curious and interested to learn about the past, seems like a rare quality to have in today's age of instant gratification. Keep the curiosity alive friend!

Hopefully there are talanted creators that produce some new engaging media on those topics.

I’m personally a big fan of the “Extra History” youtube channel that has quite a lot of those inspiring little nuggets of history that people seem to have forgotten. And “Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History” for a deep dive into different historical eras.

I’m hoping that future teachers would just recommend or even assign listening to / watching additional sources like those.

The next time somebody refutes the Churchill "then why are we fighting" quote (he didn't say it, according to Snopes) we now have this story to point to. Churchill's comments before the war were about the arts, but this one about the sciences fits in the same niche: If you believed in the role of the seed bank/collection, eating it was the last thing on your mind.

The man who founded the seedbank was sent to the gulag and sentenced to death for calling out Lysenko as a fraud. The Soviets failed to evacuate the contents of the seedbank, leaving it to be destroyed or raided. I don't understand how allying with such a government can be deemed a natural consequence of seeking to preserve knowledge and culture. The heroes in this story are solely the individual scientists.

It was a necessary evil at the time to stop the Nazis, which were a more immediate threat to the West. Note that immediately after the war, relations with the Soviets cooled significantly.

A bit off topic, I find it a bit ironic that you bring up Churchill in a discussion about famine, given that he was directly responsible for the starvation of millions of Indians.


I keep being surprised how true it is that the victors get to write the history books. Churchill killed a third as many people as Hitler did but people generally seem to be OK with that.

Churchill directly responsible?

1. The UK had a coalition government and a war cabinet of 9 not a dictatorship by Churchill, so "directly responsible" is pure hyperbole.

2. Burma fell in 42 from which point Bengal lost previous regular rice imports and was now on the front line with the Japanese.

3. Many of the Indian states under their respective Maharajas applied trade restrictions with Bengal after the fall of Burma, through 42 starting with Punjab. That significantly heightened food shortages and profiteering. It was the inability to internally import rice that was perhaps the largest single factor.

4. Bengal was inundated with half a million refugees fleeing Burma.

5. At that point in the war there was little could be done to prevent Japanese attacks in the Bay of Bengal. The War Cabinet did indeed decline Mountbatten's requests for shipping food due to expected losses.

6. A series of natural disasters in the region, including extensive crop disease and a cyclone that killed 15,000 and spread the disease spores widely.

Churchill personally could have prevented all that, at the height of the war?

Now had you pointed at Bengal's governor, who made some questionable decisions during the crisis, I think you'd have had more of a case.

Thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail. Also, your username checks out.

Seems like a questionable claim.

The story of Vavilov and his disciples is the subject of the song "When the War Came" by the Decemberists, which is haunting enough even if you don't know the story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJHOiQ2uniU

Oooh thanks for this! That's awesome

It's a common theme in dystopian stories that in times of crisis people quickly use up the resources they will need for survival when things get better. I guess they should be viewed as heroes.

they're definetely heroes to me now... you're right!

I am deeply moved by the heroism of these scientists. This goes way beyond ethics to one's profession.

There's an awesome 99% Invisible podcast on this.


I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like. How do you resist such temptation is beyond me.

Think about the people who were making bread for the rest of the city. Their quota was still the same starvation diet, with bread made out of grain husks and such. The same facilities were also baking proper bread - but all of that went to the soldiers as the highest priority.

“Over the course of the blockade 18 employees of the bread factory died at work”


At least for some people, urgent hunger passes after a few days. My brother has done a few full fasts and after a week he didn't feel hungry anymore. YMMV.

There was another incident, a case study in the early 70s, where a very obese man went on a full fast under researcher supervision and lost all his excess weight in a year or so.


There's plenty of writen testimonies from former gulag prisoners and plenty of them say that hunger subsides after few days of not eating. You just become incredibly lethargic, but as long as you are given water, you won't actually die for weeks - people were thrown in isolation cells for weeks without food and have survived.

Hunger is definitely worst when you are in the habit of of eating frequently. I’ve been having serious problems with eating for years and especially this year, and I’m amazed at how I can still function while eating so little. Eventually you run out of certain critical nutrients, though. I almost died from lack of potassium last month, a possibility that had never occurred to me.

Yep. I've done a few of these and it takes me about 3 days before I no longer feel the need to eat. I'm also the type of person who frequently forgets to eat lunch and breakfast.

Obligatory: The guy who did it did an AMA and says you should absolutely not do it ever and it was a bad idea.


He does agree with you though, says he stopped feeling hungry after a few weeks.

I think that's a different case than the one Ellyagg was talking about. I can't find a link, but that fellow spent most of a year living in a hospital, under daily medical supervision, with a careful ration of vitamin and protein supplements and maybe small portions of gruel or other minimal food, I forget.

It sounds like the guy in your link was just straight-up starving himself at home, which seems like a much worse idea. It's an interesting story, though, so thanks for sharing it!

That paper is fascinating. But I wonder how his mental and cognitive states were during the fast?

Also 37-48 days between bowel movements O_O

If you don’t eat any fiber, there’s really nothing happening in your bowels. I’ve been on a mainly liquid diet at times this year with tiny bowel movements about once a week, just because there is nothing being put in there. I haven’t experienced any apparent problems related to that.

Mental and cognitive states while slowly starving: not that good

I’ve been starving for most of the year, unable to eat much due to severe discomfort when I do. I’m about 10% below a healthy weight. At this point the idea of hunger doesn’t faze me at all - I barely feel it anymore.

Malnutrition is a slow process. It doesn’t feel very intense.

I’m basically starving while surrounded by food, like these people. What keeps me from eating it is that it causes greater pain to eat than not to.

I'm sorry.


I guess I’m open to it but it’s not clear what that would mean. Currently I’m undergoing a lot of western medical diagnosis because it’s unclear if something more serious is wrong with me than celiac disease. My idea is to use their diagnosistic and analytic ability (radiological scans, blood tests) but not necessarily seek treatment. Non-specialist doctors and non-medical practitioners often are very uninformed about celiac disease. I’m currently being evaluated by one of the world’s leading experts. If my problem is celiac the primary (only) treatment is completely avoiding gluten, which is tough to do entirely. I’ve been doing much better on an extremely strict diet of chicken, cocoa, honey, spirulina and minerals.

To those down voting or equating Ayurveda with Quackery - The amount of downvotes shows me that there is a lack of awareness of what Ayurveda and TCM truly are. These use plants and herbs to heal. They are not some sort of quackery. There are Ayurveda universities in India. Ayurveda tourism is rather popular with folks from the West. Do read up about it. It would also be relatively inexpensive for you - a holiday in India coupled with what is essentially a health spa.

To code_duck: Does having vegetables help - is that non-gluten? I have no grains or cereals, and just have lots of vegetables (leafy and non-leafy) and food with fat in it (e.g. avocados). This has helped me lose about 25 kilos of body fat, and I'm on my journey to cut down another 7.5 kilos of body fat.

I have a serious medical condition involving gut issues. You are welcome to email me if you want to talk.

Don't mind the downvotes. People here are not able to think outside their "its not western-science" box. good suggestion though, I'd definitely recommend the same

He gets downvoted because it mainly falls in the same category as homeopathy, so if it has reproducible effects it no longer falls under homeopathy or 'traditional medicine' but just as regular medicine. People have to stop putting faith in this quackery and look at stuff that is tested and proven.

One problem is that western medicine is vulnerable to forms of quackery like misleading regulatory applications and falsified testing. Also, when you have a rare condition there is not necessarily a body of medical work out there to reference.

nevermind the fact that there are ayurvedic hospitals and clinics in India nation-wide, as it as accepted as an alternative way of practicing medicine since thousands of years. I always find these statements ridiculous to say the least, I know personally so many people that got healed by your so called "quackery" that I just feel like laughing at this arrogant ignorance

If it's so efficient, why can't it pass various common tests vs placebo and so on ?

Maybe we can actually heal a lot of stuff on our own anyways and the use of alternative medicines is just a concomittant hazard.

perhaps because it doesnt work in the same way as your standard medicine does, and as such, the same testing procedures can not be applied?

western science is extremely limited, and mainly because of arrogance and superiority complex.

yes we DO heal a lot of stuff on our own, and what things like homeopathy and ayurveda do is exactly to help your body do the healing by itself, with just a gentle help.

I'm sorry, but you start with a supposed treatment for a certain disease.

You give proper treatment to some people, and you give a placebo to others. Then you check if there's any difference.

I don't see how that would work with western medicine and not with homeopathy and ayurvedic medicine. Please explain.

The Western approach of "one disease at a time" is not how Eastern Medicine works.

While I am not an authority on whether such double blind tests have been performed or not, I do know that the Eastern medicine systems have been in use for a few thousand years. There are proper University courses, regular practitioners, and thousands of success stories.

Do look up Ayurveda.

Without controls and blind tests, I can understand how folks fool them selves into thinking something like that can work. Its no different from witchcraft and other magical thinking - "I did X and Y happened. I conclude X caused Y!" Whether its poking pins in a doll, or poking pins in people, things are more complicated than that, especially medicine.

> Without controls and blind tests, I can understand how folks fool them selves into thinking something like that can work.

Fooling themselves is perfectly possible with controls and blind tests too..

yes, do stay inside your little box

Please post civilly and substantively, or not at all.


Yes sorry I too could have resisted baiting. I will try to do better.


I was searching for pictures of the scientists and found this medium series that has them, in case anyone else is thinking about using them as inspirational pictures for their office:


> After over a year-and-a-half of eating frozen cabbage and moldy flour, Nikolai Vavilov—the man who taught us about agricultural diversity and plant origins, and who spent fifty years of his life trying to end famine— died of starvation.

The guy who basically set up the seed vault was killed by his own people he was trying to help. Very depressing.

And on the other side was a guy(Lysenko) who sent him to Gulag and his theories caused the death of millions. The guy with better social-sales skills can sell his false theories versus the smart guy who mumbles in the corner. I notice it a lot in the data science community.

I notice it a lot in the corporates. If you have to climb the ladder or get a good offer you have to be buddy of another questionable character or have brilliant social skills. Engineering skills be damned. When they are about to be found out it is either too late or they will jump somewhere else.

Tragic and edifying story, only marred in my opinion by the "amusing" moniker hovering above it.

This Nat.Geo. story from 2011 ('Food Ark') describes Vavilov, and mentions that there were 'some 1,400 seed banks around the world' at that time. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2011/07/food-ark...

Looks like the UK's 'Millenium Seed Bank' is the world's largest wild-plant repository. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Seed_Bank_Partnersh...

Honestly, I can't imagine I would have done the same. They were true heroes.

Why not? Learn what it is to be courageous and loving, and decide now that if the situation arises you will do it.

Poor guys; that's really all I can say now.

I don't think I can do what the scientists did. I can't skip even a single meal. What could have driven there men to do this? Is it the integrity they gained by practicing their religion? Or is it their commitment to humanity's welfare?

All hail; the epitome of what it to be human.

Couldn’t read the story because of awful redirecting ads to fake YouTube and amazon sites telling me I’d won something.

I’ve been surprised at how many legitimate sites have those redirecting ‘sweepstakes’ ads these days - sites like politico that you wouldn’t expect to have spammy trick ads. I find it annoying enough - no idea how less technical users handle that.

Get yourself uBlock Origin

Also Privacy Badger

Sad. My web experience improved drastically when I started blocking javascript by default. uMatrix is a life saver.

...or when you are on iPad, get Dr. WiFi. It also included an ad blocker.



Vavilov's work was criticized by Trofim Lysenko, whose anti-Mendelian concepts of plant biology had won favor with Joseph Stalin. As a result, Vavilov was arrested and subsequently sentenced to death in July 1941. Although his sentence was commuted to twenty years' imprisonment, he died of starvation in prison in 1943.

The Leningrad seedbank was diligently preserved through the 28-month Siege of Leningrad. While the Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, they had not evacuated the 250,000 samples of seeds, roots, and fruits stored in what was then the world's largest seedbank. A group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them. Those guarding the seedbank refused to eat its contents, even though by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of them had died of starvation.

The article also indicates his reputation was rehabilitated posthumously:

In 1955, Vavilov's death sentence was posthumously reversed at a hearing of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, undertaken as part of a de-Stalinization effort to review Stalin-era death sentences. By the 1960s his reputation was publicly rehabilitated and he began to be hailed as a hero of Soviet science.

delbel 6 months ago [flagged]

so the lead scientist didn't die trying to save the seed bank, he was arrested " in 1940, charged with serious crimes that were fabricated; then was tortured, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by firing squad. Later, his sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison, but his jailors starved him to death in 1943. "

.. then a year later nine other scientist died of starvation

according to the Soviets.

Yeah call me a skeptic on this. I bet they just sentence his fellow scientist with the same crime and then later when they found out he was right, re-wrote the story. Again, serious doubts.

Source #14 in the wikipedia article The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Nikolai-Vavilov-Stalins-Persec...

I'm really not sure what you are trying to say. As far as I can tell, the featured article doesn't claim he was one of the people who died protecting the seeds. It just claims he founded the seed bank.

He died gruesomely. So did 9 scientists who starved to death. This seems to fit perfectly well with the idea that scientists were treated pretty badly.

Would you like to more clearly state what you think is untrue here? Because I'm quite baffled.


> so the lead scientist didn't die trying to save the seed bank, he was arrested

Nobody said otherwise. The article we're discussing tells the same story.

You appear to be attacking a strawman that you made up after skimming the article.


There is probably no way this story can be true because of human nature. Telling that people put scientific ideals above hunger just sounds like a later propaganda tale. Maybe the founder had enough food and let the guardians starve.

I think sprout that didn't have any sun wouldn't have more calories than just the seed ground to flour.


"Obviously the people in the article were hungry and tired"

The people were in a state of starvation, your ability to walk distances in freezing conditions is linked to the amount of fat on your bones and the quality of clothing, pretty sure neither of those were very optimal at the time.

The amount of privilege evident in this comment is absolutely astounding. You should be ashamed of yourself.

I agree with you the that commenter's conditions were not comparable to those of people starving in a war. But please don't respond to a bad comment with a worse one, and please keep the online shaming culture off this site.


Because giving out free morale lessons is to be saluted ? Another poster responded quite appropriately before you, why did you feel like shaming someone ?

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