1982 Balzan Prize for Pure and Applied Botany
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 27.01.1983
I am tremendously honored by this award and I wish to thank those who nominated me and the International Committee who decided in my favour, out of what must have been many equally deserving candidates. While it is most satisfying to have one’s work so recognized I must tell you that in any contributions I have made I owe a great deal to my students. Surely no man could have been more fortunate in his students and they have made major contributions in their own right; not only do most of them now occupy professorships in the major American universities and in at least six foreign universities, but three of them have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In addition I must acknowledge a great debt to my numerous postdoctoral research fellows; they have come from Italy and many other countries of Europe, and from seven or eight other nations of the world. Ali have been hardworking and productive. Then too one of the great rewards of working together in science is that your students and research fellows remain your personal friends for life. Finally, my wife has given me encouragement, careful criticism and support for over fifty years, a truly remarkable achievement of patience and devotion.
There is a less personal reason for real pleasure, and that is that the prize comes to the field of botany. I have always thought it a pity that Alfred Nobel was not more interested in plants, for the five fields of study that he chose for his prizes do not include nor even verge upon the area of the plant sciences. What has been true for the major awards has also traditionally been true for the support of research, — very large sums are expended for work on medicine and health but much, much smaller funds are available for work on the plant sciences. Indeed, my own work has only been made possible by the continued support of the National Science Foundation of the U.S.A. Yet if the support of medicine is justified by the need for all people to be healthy and to be treated effectively for their accidents and diseases, sure l work on plants is equally justified by the need for food. The sciences underlying agriculture are those that help to keep the world’s people fed. No amount of medicine, however advanced, can cure starvation.
As the world’s population continues to grow inexorably, and the land on which plants and animals can be raised remains constant or nearly so, the menace of world hunger looms larger and larger. Only a steady improvement in agricultural yields can stave off serious calamity, and that can only be attained by the continued development of the plant sciences and their related fields of agricultural economics, marketing and transportation. We need the best minds of the world to come into the plant sciences, and one can hope that the availability of great prizes like those of the Fondazione Balzan will prove a stimulus for such recruitment. Indeed the Fondazione is to be congratulated on its wise and farseeing decision to award a prize in pure and applied botany.
Perhaps there is a special reason for pleasure that the award is made in Rome. The ancient Romans favoured the practical sciences and accordingly they were great agriculturists. What are probably the first books on agriculture ever written were by Cato the Censor in 160 B.C. and Marcus Terentius Varro, his De Re Rustica, about 36 BC. Varro knew of the culture of cotton, which he called « tree wool », and conceived the idea of microorganisms that cause contagious diseases. Virgil’s long poem about agriculture, the Georgics, was written at about the same time. All those books were produced right here in Rome. Perhaps as a result of this interest, agriculture and the plant sciences have continued to flourish in Italy, and indeed the first Botanic Garden of which we have records was planted in Padua. It is indeed a great tradition and I am exceedingly happy to be made a part of it through this award.