U alumnus and scientist dies

Sir Bent Skovmand received widespread acclaim for his work in international agriculture.

Karlee Weinmann

Internationally renowned plant scientist, conservationist and University alumnus Sir Bent Skovmand died Feb. 6 in Sweden of complications resulting from a brain tumor. He was 61.

Most recently, Skovmand championed an effort to preserve genetic diversity among different wheats, barleys and oats that might be endangered due to lack of protection and disappearing habitats.

Because of his efforts, an estimated 3 million to 5 million seeds will be preserved in the Svarlbard International Sea Vault, carved into a frozen mountainside on Spitsbergen Island in Norway.

Skovmand came to the University in the late ’60s and went on to work closely with Nobel laureate and fellow University alumnus Norman Borlaug to become internationally recognized in the world of agriculture.

Skovmand was director of the Sweden-based Nordic Gene Bank, which is chiefly responsible for maintaining the vault, for the three years preceding his death.

The ability to speak six languages made Skovmand an asset in global development, and organizations across the world appreciated his expertise.

After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in plant pathology from the

University, Skovmand worked for the International Maize and

Wheat Improvement Center, where he and Borlaug focused on wheat.

After a stint with a U.N. team studying agricultural development, Skovmand returned to CIMMYT to head its Wheat Genetic Resources program.

Skovmand was knighted by the queen of Denmark for his scientific achievements in 2003.

Construction on the vault will begin next month and is anticipated to be finished before the facility opens officially in 2008.

The massive chamber has been dubbed a “Doomsday Vault” and will be a climate-controlled reserve for seeds, in addition to its genetic preservation.

In cases of natural disasters that wipe out entire crops, seeds needed to replenish affected areas will be readily available.

The region of southeastern Asia, devastated by a 2004 tsunami, would be an example of a beneficiary of such a reserve, said Henry Schands, director emeritus for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.

“Bent was in a key position to the organization of the international gene bank,” Schands said. “That’s where he’ll really be missed in the short term.”

Plant pathology professor Richard Zeyen worked with Skovmand at the University beginning in 1968, and although he didn’t anticipate the international acclaim that ultimately followed Skovmand’s work, there was a distinct ambition inherent to Skovmand’s character.

“He knew what he was going to do and what he wanted to do,” Zeyen said. “He knew he wanted to be in international agriculture.”

Jacob Lage worked under Skovmand at CIMMYT for three years. He said his former boss was not only a great mentor, but also changed the face of preserving genetic resources.

“(He made) visible the need for genetic storage,” Lage said. “(He drove) NGB out of the shadow and into the light.”

Long-term benefits are clearly present in Skovmand’s work, according to Max Finberg, director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

“Diseases can wipe out entire species. If we have seed stocks and genetic information, we’ll always be prepared for those sorts of catastrophes,” he said.

Former Congressman Tim Penny, who chaired a congressional subcommittee dealing with agriculture and hunger, said he also places great importance on Skovmand’s passion-fueled work.

“Obviously, what he was doing makes a lot of sense,” he said. “What he was involved in is certainly going to leave a legacy.”

Skovmand is survived by his wife, Eugenia, and four children. Skovmand’s family is establishing a fellowship in his honor to be awarded to a University graduate student.

– Nina Petersen-Perlman contributed to this report.