Although it’s impossible to say for sure, Trofim Lysenko probably killed more human beings than any individual scientist in history. Other dubious scientific achievements have cut thousands upon thousands of lives short: dynamite, poison gas, atomic bombs. But Lysenko, a Soviet biologist, condemned perhaps millions of people to starvation through bogus agricultural research—and did so without hesitation. Only guns and gunpowder, the collective product of many researchers over several centuries, can match such carnage.
Having grown up desperately poor at the turn of the 20th century, Lysenko believed wholeheartedly in the promise of the communist revolution. So when the doctrines of science and the doctrines of communism clashed, he always chose the latter—confident that biology would conform to ideology in the end. It never did. But in a twisted way, that commitment to ideology has helped salvage Lysenko’s reputation today. Because of his hostility toward the West, and his mistrust of Western science, he’s currently enjoying a revival in his homeland, where anti-American sentiment runs strong.
Lysenko vaulted to the top of the Soviet scientific heap with unusual speed. Born into a family of peasant farmers in 1898, he was illiterate until age 13, according to a recent article on his revival in Current Biology. He nevertheless took advantage of the Russian Revolution and won admission to several agricultural schools, where he began experimenting with new methods of growing peas during the long, hard Soviet winter, among other projects. Although he ran poorly designed experiments and probably faked some of his results, the research won him praise from a state-run newspaper in 1927. His hardscrabble background—people called him the “barefoot scientist”—also made him popular within the Communist party, which glorified peasants.