The Early Years
It all started on a small farm in Northeast Iowa! It's here that Norm learned the value of hard work and education and the importance of family and friends.
"It was Grandad who most influenced my young life. No one else saw any prospect of change. But he saw a better world ahead, I had to make myself worthy to meet it." Norman Borlaug
During his early school years, his grandfather Nels was probably the most influential person when in came to being earnest about learning. His cousin and teacher, Sina, also encouraged him to pursue more education than was common for the time. Both of these individuals told his parents and Norman that he should continue his education by attending high school in Cresco, twelve miles to the north of the Borlaug farm.
Norm's sister, Palma, spoke about her brother's passion for learning. "Norman was always asking questions; he had a curious mind. Growing things fascinated him from his childhood. He always had a feeling for plants, a pasionate desire to know how they grew. He was curious about the change of seasons and the migrations of wild ducks and geese. He would ask, 'Why do the other birds - robins, blackbirds, bobolinks - not migrate in flocks, like ducks and geese? And why do the weasel and jackrabbit change their brown coats to white?'"
Because of the distance, Norm had to stay in Cresco part of the time. That meant he wasn't able to help on the farm nearly as much. It was definitely a sacrifice for his family to allow him to attend high school. As with all things, Norm worked hard at his studies. Many of his courses were related to agriculture. Most students of this time period focussed on areas that they hoped to make their life's work.
Norm was also an excellent athlete, and he soon caught the attention of the high school principal and wrestling coach, Dave Bartelma. Coach Bartelma was probably the most influential person in Norm's life during this period of time. Bartelma told Norm, "Give the best that God gave you. If you won't do that, don't bother to compete." Norm not only lived up to the challenge during his high school career, he lived it his entire life.
Norm went on to attend the University of Minnesota where he majored in Forestry. This was during the Great Depression and was easily the most difficult time of his life. He almost left school several times because of his struggle to pay tuition, rent, or buy food for himself. Norm persevered and was able to work several jobs during his semesters and summers while attending the U of M. After college he was set to work for the National Forest Service, but the job fell through because of the Depression, so he went back to school and earned his Masters and PhD in Plant Pathology.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Norm sought to enlist. However, his work as a scientist was deemed too valuable to the war effort. He worked from 1942 until 1944 for Du Pont. His lab developed a glue that allowed supplies to be packaged so that they would remain safe from water intrusion and corrosion.
In July of 1944 Borlaug began his international career in Mexico through the Rockefeller Foundation. Here, he learned about wheat breeding and growing methods and came to develop the hybrid that would feed millions of people throughout the world. Norm became the “Father of the Green Revolution,” lifting Mexico, Pakistan, India, South Asia, and parts of Africa out of starvation through his visits and teachings.
The World Food Prize has an excellent extended biography by Ambassador Kenneth Quinn about the life and accomplishments of Norm. View Biography