MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- It was a lecture that might have changed the world.
Not long after a young Norman Borlaug earned his bachelor's degree in forestry at the University of Minnesota in 1939, he returned for a visit and happened to catch a lecture by professor Elvin Stakman, a pioneer in the school's plant pathology department. The topic was a "shifty little enemy" -- the crop disease wheat rust.
Borlaug was so intrigued by what he learned that he approached Stakman afterward and said he wanted to be his student. He earned his masters' and doctoral degrees in plant pathology at the university in 1939 and 1942. Then he went on to develop high-yielding wheat varieties that launched the "Green Revolution" that transformed agriculture in the developing world. He is credited with saving more than a billion lives and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
"It was a lecture that changed history," Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said Thursday. He spoke at a memorial gathering on campus where Borlaug was hailed as one of Minnesota's greatest alumni.
Borlaug died at his home in Dallas last month at age 95 of complications from cancer.
"He told me about how riveting it was, and how he was so focused on this, and how Stakman had touched him," Quinn said. "Like Saul on the road to Damascus."
Borlaug did his most enduring work after he finished his degrees at Minnesota. At Stakman's urging, he led a Rockefeller Foundation development project in Mexico in 1944. He took advantage of having both summer and winter growing seasons to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant strains of wheat with short stalks that didn't collapse under the weight of the grain they carried.
He finished his academic career at Texas A&M University. But speakers at the memorial said Borlaug always loved the University of Minnesota and returned often.
Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson recalled meeting him in 1986, when Borlaug walked into his office, introduced himself as an alumnus who had wrestled for three years and offered advice on how Robinson could get the program back on track.
It was the start of a close friendship, and Robinson traveled to Texas to visit Borlaug shortly before he died. He said Borlaug loved wrestling because it was a one-on-one sport.
"Norm had to sell the prime minister of India on the value of his wheat and his new agricultural procedures that he had perfected," Robinson said, recalling a story Borlaug often told him. "Norm said to me: "J, it was like a wrestling match between me and him. And I was going to come out the winner. It was too important, there was just too much at stake to lose. The persistence I learned in wrestling carried me through.'"
Quinn, whose foundation is in Des Moines, Iowa, said people there sometimes complain Minnesota "stole" Borlaug from them.
"I am glad he came here," Quinn said. "Because it was here (during the Depression) that he confronted out on those streets, he saw desperately hungry people sleeping on the streets at night, and he would tell me about that and how it affected him for the rest of his life, and oriented him towards hungry people."
The "green revolution" helped more than double world food production between 1960 and 1990. But Borlaug's daughter said he told her two days before he died that his work was unfinished.
"He said 'I did not finish my mission in Africa,'" Jeanie Borlaug Laube said, then urged the more than 200 faculty, staff and students in attendance to take up his cause.
"Those of you that have worked with him, have loved him, need to keep up his mission," she said. "Africa needs to be saved, as the rest of the world does, and that is the best legacy that we can continue for him."
On the Net:
University of Minnesota site on Borlaug: http://www.cfans.umn.edu/borlaug.html
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.