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He Saved A Billion Lives!

 
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Norman Borlaug
"A Life Well-Lived"

1914 - 2009

"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

Few people in the history of the world have done as much to positively impact humanity around the world as Dr. Norman Borlaug. Born on a small farm south of Cresco, Iowa, Dr. Borlaug devoted his career to saving the lives of millions of starving people around the globe. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work. He is also one of only seven people to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize (four of the others in this very select group are Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Elie Weisel).

A Small, Iowa Seed That Grew To Feed The World

A Biography covering the people and circumstances that shaped Norman E. Borlaug into the man who saved so many lives.

If you wanted to discover the story behind how a "billion lives were saved," you probably wouldn't look to a small, remote farm and a little one room school in Northeast Iowa as the genesis point. But that is exactly where you would need to begin!


Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in an upstairs bedroom of a small farmhouse owned by his grandparents, Nels and Emma Borlaug, on March 25, 1914.  He was the first child born to his parents, Henry and Clara Borlaug, who were living with the grandparents along with Henry's brother, Oscar Borlaug. The three men worked the farm as a unit.

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During the approximately eight years he lived at the original homestead, Norm was greatly influenced by Grandpa Nels. Although Nels only had three years of formal schooling, he valued education a great deal, and he made sure that his children and grandchildren were able to get as much education as possible.

His grandparents believed in common sense and hard work and passed those values on to their children and grandchildren. Norm learned to do farm chores at an early age; things like feeding the chickens, pulling weeds, caring for livestock and helping with fieldwork. When he was five, Norm started school in the same one room schoolhouse, New Oregon #8, that his father had attended. This meant walking a little over a mile north to the school each day. One day, young Norm felt tired and didn't want to go, but his Grandpa Nels said, "Norm-boy, it's better to fill your head now, if you want to fill your belly later." Norm took this to heart and education became a lifelong passion.

When Norm was eight, his dad bought an adjoining piece of land and the family moved about a half mile away to a new house. This new house was much bigger; it was a Sears Kit Home that came on a railroad car to a nearby station and was then hauled out to the farm and put up by his father and others. In 1927 his dad also built a large barn. Both those buildings stand today on the Boyhood Farm property along with the New Oregon #8 School.

(Photo of Young Norm (L) and His Cousin)

 

Another early influence on Norm's life was his teacher for the final two years at New Oregon #8, Sina Borlaug, a cousin. Sina had already had a major impact on Norm when he was about 5. One day a huge snowstorm blew in causing the teacher to send the kids home early. In order to get home safely, the kids held on to each other with the older kids breaking the way through the deep snow. The effort and cold soon took a toll on Norm who wanted to lie down in the snow and rest. Sina would not let that happen, forcing Norm to go on with her help. They all arrived safely at their homes.

 

Sina saw in Norm a real passion for learning and an eagerness to discover new things. She encouraged his parents to allow him to go to Cresco to attend high school. This was a major move away from the way things were normally done on farms in those days. Boys were expected to help with the farm work, and in Henry’s case, Norm was the only boy in the family; it would be a huge sacrifice to allow Norm to spend the week in Cresco.  There was a second reason that would help make this break with tradition possible. Norm’s dad had just purchased a Fordson tractor, the first tractor he owned.  With a tractor, the extra labor needed to harness, feed and care for workhorses could be eliminated.  Also, tractors could do more work in less time. With Sina telling his parents that, “Norm has grit!” and encouragement from Grandpa Nels about the value of additional education, Norm was allowed to attend Cresco High School during the week.

(Photo of Norm's cousin and teacher Sina Borlaug)

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Norm’s high school years were an important factor in helping him develop habits and new ways of thinking that would be important factors in his world-changing future.  Two teachers had a major impact on his character and his ideas about agriculture and hard work.

His agriculture teacher, Harry Schroder, introduced Norm to ideas that were revolutionary at the time such as hybrid seeds and fertilizers. High school education in rural communities was more geared to boys going back to the farm, and Norm chose courses that aligned with that idea rather than courses that would prepare him for college. (This would come back to haunt him when he tried to get admitted to college after high school graduation.) Schroeder sensed that Norm had something special, and Norm was equally excited by what Schroeder was introducing, saying, “Under Mr. Schroeder’s direction, our crops class set up one of the first on-farm chemical fertilizer tests on hybrid corn in Howard County.” (Hesser, p. 12)

Norm’ second, and even more influential high school educator, was principal and coach, Dave Bartelma.  Bartelma was impressed by Norm’s attitude and work ethic and by the time Norm completed high school, he became a star athlete in wrestling, football an ds baseball. Bartelma told Norm, “Give the best that God gave you. If you won’t do that, don’t bother to compete.” (Hesser, p. 12) Norm took this advice to heart, and worked with unrelenting intensity at whatever he pursued.

(Photo of Norm in his baseball uniform)

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It was the height of the Depression when Norm graduated from high school. He was not sure about what he wanted to do in college, so he decided to take a year off and earn some money for his future education. His Grandpa Nels continued to push him to get a college education telling him, “Get a university education. Get there, Norm-boy, anyway you can.” (Hesser, p.14) By early summer of 1933, he had saved almost $60. He was going to attend Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls and become a teacher and coach, but fate intervened in the form of George Champlin, a one-time teammate of Norm’s in high school and now a star running back at the University of Minnesota.

 

Champlin convinced Norm to go with him to Minneapolis promising him he could get a job and then work to pay his way through the university. Norm agreed, and they left the next day in Champlin’s car. Norm got a job at the university coffee, shop and not long afterwards, he happened to notice an attractive young woman who was eating there. She introduced herself shortly after they struck up a conversation saying, “my name is Margaret Gibson.” This was the beginning of a budding romance that ultimately led to Margaret and Norm’s marriage in 1937.

Norm happened to take a ride on a streetcar to the university’s agriculture campus in St. Paul; he fell in love with it and decided to take the college entrance exam. His lack of appropriate academic courses in high school caused him to fail the entrance exam. He was extremely upset by his failure and poured out his frustration on Margaret who was his great encourager.

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With her ongoing support he decided to take advantage of entry into the new General College program which would provide him with the courses he was lacking; he also called up that “grit” that Sina said he had an the determination to win that he had received from Coach Bartelma, and towards the end of his second quarter, he approached Dr. Fred Hovde of the General College administration and asked for his support to get Norm into the agriculture college forestry program. Seeing that same spark others had seen in Norm, Hovde agreed to help Norm get in. Norm now had a specific goal, and he went after it with the tenacity of the champion he was. Years later in 1968, while speaking at Purdue University, Norm said of Dr. Hovde, now Purdue’s President, “I wouldn’t be the scientist I am today if it weren’t for Fred Hovde.” (Hesser, p. 20)

Because the Depression was in full effect at the time Norm started at the U of M, he couldn’t help noticing the despair and suffering of thousands who lived on the streets. It would have a long lasting impact on his desire to help those in need.

Norm joined the wrestling team at the U of M. His work ethic made him a standout, and he reached the Big Ten semifinals. His outstanding determination and success also led to his former high school coach, Dave Bartelma, being asked to take over the university’s wrestling program during Norm’s sophomore year. Together the two men would establish wrestling at the high school level throughout the state of Minnesota.

The next couple of years found Norm working towards his forestry degree. To help with college expenses, he was able to secure a grant from the National Youth Administration. This grant led to him working for various professors including a veterinarian and an entomologist. He later said that he gained valuable insight into other scientific disciplines that ultimately would help him in his chosen career of working with plants.

In 1937 he took a summer job with the US Forest Service stationed at a remote fire tower in Salmon River District of Idaho. Here he had an intense introduction to solitude and self-reliance as well as an eye-opening and up-close relationship with the natural world. Again, experiences that would serve him well in the future. He said of his experience, “I [learned] that the greatest danger to their [the forest and wilderness] perpetuity is the pressure of human population.”

His excellence at this parttime summer job resulted in an offer to work fulltime as an assistant ranger in the Idaho National Forest. With a job in hand, he asked Margaret to marry him, and the wedding took place at her brother’s house in Minneapolis on September 27. 1937.

Just a few months after the wedding, Norm was informed that the U.S. Forest Service would not be able to immediately follow through with hiring him because of budget cuts. They thought that the job opening might be available in June of 1938. Once again, Margaret stabilized Norm’s frustration encouraging him to pursue a graduate degree while she continued to work and support them. This would be a pattern that would mark their marriage – Margaret was the rock that held things together on the home front so that Norm could do the things he needed to do in his education and scientific work. Daughter Norma Jean said, “Mom should have gotten the Nobel Prize because she was the one that kept things together so that Daddy could do his work.”

(Margaret and Norm in their wedding photo)

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Another major influence on Norm’s life was entering the picture in the winter of 1927-38, Dr. Elvin Stakman. Stakman was a leading plant pathologist and had made his reputation studying the effects of wheat rust (in 1940 Stakman became the head of the U of M Department of Plant Pathology). Norm attended a lecture entitled "These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops," given by Stakman. Afterwards, he asked the professor about staying with forest pathology and Stakman advised him to switch to plant pathology. Soon after, Norm enrolled in the department and obtained his Masters (1940) and PH.D. (1942). This career change would ultimately lead Borlaug to his groundbreaking wheat research in Mexico working under the direction of Stakman and his project director in Mexico, George Harrar. This Mexican wheat project would forever change the life of Norman Borlaug and propel him to the status of “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives.”

The details of the life of Norman Borlaug after he developed his rust resistant wheat strains in Mexico, are well-known and much reported.  There are resources listed below to find out more. What isn't so well known are the early influences that led to the development of the tenacious humanitarian who could stand up to the myriad of setbacks and the multitude of naysayers around the world who tried to stop him in his work; but Norm "Never Gave Up!"

*On March 25, 2014, a statue honoring Dr. Norman E. Borlaug and his unprecedented achievements towards ending world hunger, was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. See photo at left.

Credits and Additional Resources