John S. Niederhauser, founding member of The Potato Museum's Board of Directors, passed away peacefully at home on August 12, 2005, sleeping in his self-ejecting lounge chair in his study. John would have been amused by this, as it was probably the first time he had been caught sleeping on the job. Though he had retired, his work went on. Once you read this report and visit the links you will know that Dr. Niederhauser packed a lot of work and play into his 88 years. He was rarely idle and seldom quiet.
John Niederhauser's home office in Tucson, Arizona. The desk and walls are full of mementoes and awards from a lifetime commitment to helping feed the world.
His World Food Prize is on the shelf just above his chair. It is surrounded by miscellaneous potato memorabilia.
"The most important issue confronting the human race
is how we are going to preserve the quality of the environment
and still feed the rapidly growing population into the next millennum.
The Potato Museum provides a vehicle to get the message across."
No brief obituary could possibly do justice to the memory of John Niederhauser, potato scientist.
We last saw him in March, and he was up to his usual hilarious and insightful quips and quirks, discussing politics, world hunger, his beloved Mexico, and, of course, the potato, the vegetable that claimed his attention throughout his long career.
John posing with, well...himself...a popular gift from his family.
There was never a quality shaggy dog story or brief one-liner John did not appreciate, and worse, remember, in full detail. We doubt anyone ever stopped him when he would begin genially," You know the one about the duck and the anti-freeze.......please tell me if you've heard this..." because his story-telling skills were superlative.
A tall man who had been a precocious boy in Central Washington State, and top student at Cornell, earning his PhD in plant pathology in 1943, he went on to be a Rockefeller-funded scientist based in the highlands west of Mexico City. There he determined that the potato strain responsible for late-blight had originated in Mexico where wild varieties had genetic resistance to the pathogen. For 30 years he and his team worked to develop resistant potato varieties that subsistence farmers could grow, thus cutting down on expensive fungicides while also reducing their environmental impact. ( While in Mexico he also found time to become the founder and president of Little League baseball from 1954 to 1969, and the Latin American Commissioner from 1957 to 1969. )
Painting of potato flowers hung on John's bedroom wall.
This potato still life was in the Niederhauser study. Today, thanks to John's family, it is part of The Potato Museum collection.
Not only was potato production hugely increased in Mexico, but programs in Turkey, Bangladesh, India, Colombia and Pakistan were able to boost production four to eight times. John went on to help establish the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, and several other global agriculture initiatives.
John's wife, Ann Faber Niederhauser, with whom he raised six children, was his companion and support in all endeavors. A gifted weaver not only of rugs and cloth, but also of memorable gatherings of family and friends, Ann died in 2000.
Ann & John Niederhauser
Here are excerpts from the University of Arizona's statement on the passing of their illustrious professor emeritus.
In Memoriam: John S. Niederhauser, 'Mr. Potato'
By University of Arizona News Services August 22, 2005
Dr. John Niederhauser, internationally renowned potato scientist, 1990 World Food Prize winner, University of Arizona adjunct professor of plant pathology, died Aug. 12, 2005. He was 88.
Niederhauser was a pioneer in international cooperation for the improvement of agricultural productivity worldwide. Known throughout the world as "Mr. Potato" for developing potato varieties resistant to late blight disease, his work has impacted agricultural production in more than 60 countries.
"In 1990, in recognition of his significant contributions to improving the world food supply and alleviating hunger and malnutrition, Niederhauser was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in agriculture," said Eugene Sander, vice provost and dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The UA was a major sponsor of Niederhauser's nomination for this honor.
In 1946, Niederhauser joined the newly formed Rockefeller Foundation Mexican Agricultural Program. He spent 15 years working in Mexico on corn, wheat and bean production. During this time, he began to study potato production in Mexico. His work over the next several decades focused on the improvement of potato production in many developing countries.
Due to the success of this work, the International Potato Center, now supported by CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, was established in Lima, Peru, in 1971. In 1978, Niederhauser established the Regional Cooperative Potato Program (PRECODEPA) in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. This cooperative program has grown to include 12 countries. Similar programs have been established throughout the world.
One of Niederhauser's most important scientific contributions was the development of potato varieties with resistance to late blight disease, caused by the fungal pathogen Phytopthora infestans. This pathogen was responsible for many potato disease outbreaks around the world, including the Irish potato famine during the 1840s.
During his research, Niederhauser discovered that the source of the pathogen responsible for the Irish potato famine came from Mexico. More importantly, he discovered many wild inedible potato species in Mexico that possessed a durable field resistance to the late blight fungus. He began breeding work using these resistant lines which resulted in a collection of commercially useful resistant potato varieties. These new varieties allowed subsistence farmers around the world to be able to grow potatoes for the first time with few or no chemical fungicide applications.
Niederhauser's work resulted in the establishment of the potato as the fourth major food crop worldwide. As a result of this work, potato production in Mexico increased from 134,000 metric tons in 1948 to greater than 1 million metric tons by 1982.
In addition to his efforts with potato late blight, one of Niederhauser's greatest contributions was also the large number of scientists and leaders he trained during his career. More than 180 international scientists came and worked with him in his Mexican field plots. He spent considerable time with students as well.
"John was always a pleasure to interact with. His sense of humor, storytelling and compassion about science--and more importantly about all people--made him an irreplaceable treasure," said Leland Pierson, chair of the Division of Plant Pathology.
Niederhauser won numerous awards throughout his career. More recent recognition includes the 1991 American Institute of Biological Sciences Distinguished Scientist Award; the 1996 Medal of Merit by the Ministry of Agricultural Development, Panama; 2001 Honorary Doctor's Degree by the National Agricultural University, Mexico; 2002 Honorary Diploma by the Department of Agriculture, State Government of Mexico; 2002 Honorary Recognition of Outstanding Contribution by the Global Initiative on Late Blight (GILB); 2002 Honorary Doctorate by Oregon State University; and Honoree in 2003 at the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, Costa Rica.
"With John's passing, international agriculture has lost a giant," said Merle H. Jensen, retired associate director of the CALS agricultural experiment station and active chair of the endowment committee. "He was passionate in his concern for students and their ability to further their professional development. His care and concern for Mexico and her people was tireless and his impact will out live all of us."