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Former IRRI Director General M.S. Swaminathan passes away in India

by Gene Hettel

Two future World Food Prize Laureates, Dr. Swaminathan (1987) and Gurdev Khush (1996), confer in the IRRI rice research plots in 1984. (IRRI file photo)

Eminent agricultural scientist, geneticist, and administrator Dr. M.S. Swaminathan (at left in first photo), 98, passed away 28 September at his residence in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. He was director general (DG) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from 1982 to 1988.

Before and after his time at IRRI, he was an influential figure on the global stage, contributing to various international agricultural and environmental initiatives. During his time at IRRI he played a critical role in the establishment of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), as a way of creating national infrastructure to empower national researchers and help rice science flourish in the Philippines.

Until just last month with the appointment of IRRI’s current interim Director General, Dr. Swaminathan had been IRRI’s only Asian director general and, as such, brought a different feel to the Institute during his 6 years at the helm.

“Dr. Swaminathan leaves behind a towering legacy of excellence in science, conscientiousness in administration, decisiveness, and accountability in leadership and most especially a gracious humanity in relationships,” said Dr. Ajay Kohli, IRRI’s interim DG. “His ability to remember names of anyone he met once was less down to a keen memory and more down to him relating to the person very quickly. That is what contributed to the staff's fondness of him and his time at IRRI. A beacon of inspiration 
has moved on from the earth to the ether.”

Dr. Swaminathan outside the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai India in the late 1990s. (Photo by Gene Hettel)

On the occasion of Dr. Swaminathan being presented with the very first World Food Prize in 1987, Javier Perez de Cuellar, then Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote: "Dr. Swaminathan is a living legend. His contributions to agricultural science have made an indelible mark on food production in India and elsewhere in the developing world. By any standards, he will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction." He used the Prize money to establish the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, further cementing his commitment to sustainable and inclusive agricultural practices.

Dr. Swaminathan emphasizes a point during his 2006 IRRI Pioneer Interview at his New Delhi office. (Photo by Gene Hettel)

Among his other many notable accolades are the Philippine Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1971, the Albert Einstein World Science Award in 1986, and being named one of the 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century by Time magazine in 1999, reflecting his far-reaching impact.

In the course of his IRRI Pioneer interview sessions on 10-11 October 2006 at his office in New Delhi (photo), he hit the nail on the head when he stated, “Life becomes more interesting when some old challenges are solved and new ones come along. We need new challenges as we enter the 21st century, and as you can see, we have them. An institute such as IRRI should always be ready to change course. If it is not, it will be passed by others.”

As reported in India Today, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said “that, at a very critical period in our nation’s history, his groundbreaking work in agriculture transformed the lives of millions and ensured food security for our nation. Beyond his revolutionary contributions to agriculture, Dr. Swaminathan was a powerhouse of innovation and a nurturing mentor to many. His unwavering commitment to research and mentorship has left an indelible mark on countless scientists and innovators."

Age certainly did not slow him down. Back in 2015, at age 90, when asked to write a Grain of Truth editorial column on the outstanding 50-year partnership between India and IRRI for the April-June 2015 issue of Rice Today magazine, page 46, he quickly obliged within 24 hours.

“Till the end, my father was committed to farmers' welfare and to the upliftment of the poorest in society,” said Soumya Swaminathan, his daughter and former WHO deputy secretary. Recalling her father's work towards empowering women, she added that, “he was one of the few people who recognized that women are neglected in agriculture.”

Dr. Swaminathan and two IRRI DG predecessors, Nyle Brady (1973-81) and Robert Chandler (1960-72), celebrate IRRI’s winning of the Third World Prize in 1982. (IRRI file photo)

Dr. Swaminathan was preceded in death in 2022 by his wife, Mina, and, in addition to Soumya, is survived by two other daughters, Madhura and Nitya. Madhura is a current IRRI board member.

His passing marks the end of an era across international agriculture leaving behind a monumental legacy as an exceptional human being.

Read Dr. Swaminathan’s obituary in the New York Times.