MANY people argue about which Nobel laureate has done the most for humankind with Scotland’s Alexander Fleming, joint-winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945, often credited as the man who has saved most lives because of his discovery of penicillin.

Yet 50 years ago today, the Nobel Peace Prize went to a man who is credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives by transforming the agriculture of many countries where poor crops and soils led to constant catastrophic famines.

Norman Borlaug, an American of Norwegian descent, was working in a Mexican field when his award was announced to the world. His wife Margaret raced to tell him, and he replied: “Someone’s pulling your leg.” He then just kept on working.

READ MORE: How the awarding of one Nobel Prize astounded the world 50 years ago

He is often forgotten now but at the time of the so-called Green Revolution when food production soared worldwide, Borlaug was recognised as the “father” of that transformation.


NORMAN Borlaug was born in Saude, Iowa on March 25, 1914. It was a community of largely Norwegian immigrants, and had just a one room country school. Naturally curious he wondered why some plants fared better in one field than in others, and that curiosity stayed with him after he worked his way through the University of Minnesota and got a job with the DuPont chemical company, only to be attracted to a project being run in Mexico by the Rockefeller Foundation.

There he began a long and arduous experimental programme to breed hardier and more substantial wheat crops, becoming a full-time agronomist with a doctorate and a team of researchers and workers to assist him.


IN Mexico, his methods and discoveries led to that country increasing its wheat production by a factor of six. It was also better quality wheat which enabled the Mexican economy to handle more than just bread production.

In its citation the Nobel organisation wrote: “For the past twenty-seven years he has collaborated with Mexican scientists on problems of wheat improvement; for the last ten or so of those years he has also collaborated with scientists from other parts of the world, especially from India and Pakistan, in adapting the new wheats to new lands and in gaining acceptance for their production. An eclectic, pragmatic, goal-oriented scientist, he accepts and discards methods or results in a constant search for more fruitful and effective ones, while at the same time avoiding the pursuit of what he calls “academic butterflies”. A vigorous man who can perform prodigies of manual labour in the fields, he brings to his work the body and competitive spirit of the trained athlete, which indeed he was in his high school and college days.

They added: “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”


Borlaug was adamant all his adult life that there was not much point in tackling lack of food if the human race did not also humanely deal with the population explosion.

He said in his speech in Oslo: “We are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers. Science, invention, and technology have given him materials and methods for increasing his food supplies substantially and sometimes spectacularly.

READ MORE: The British Empire – and the story of how Scots helped to start it

“Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.

“There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.”

He always considered himself just a farm boy from Iowa, but when he died at the age of 95 in September 2009, world leaders paid tribute.