He Saved A Billion Lives…

And You Probably Don't Know His Name


Quick — can you give me the latest on the divorce drama between Jon & Kate Gosselin? Or why Paula Abdul isn’t going to be judging this year’s American Idol? Odds are you can answer those questions but you can’t tell me the name of the man who died recently after saving more than a billion lives.

I’ll give you another hint: He was one of only six people ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

You can probably name most of the other five recipients of this trio of honors — Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi — but odds are you’ve never heard this man’s name.

You’ve never heard of him, yet when he died he was lauded as history’s “greatest human being.” You’ve never heard of him, yet he changed your life.

Author Dr. Christine Whelan, Dr. Norman Borlaug and author's mother, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan
Author Dr. Christine Whelan, Dr. Norman Borlaug and author's mother, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan

Dr. Norman Borlaug, who died September 12, 2009, at the age of 95, was humble and kind, and devoted his intelligence not to getting rich himself but to transforming the lives of those who needed help the most.

We spend so much of our time focusing on the goings-on of celebrities and reality TV stars — and that’s OK; it’s only human — but occasionally it’s important to give tribute to a person who is really changing our world, quietly, with no spotlight or paparazzi documenting their journey.

Dr. Norman Borlaug: An American Hero

Born in 1914 in rural Iowa, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work that contributed to ending the India-Pakistan food shortage of the mid-60s. Until Dr. Borlaug’s discoveries, rot and infestation could decimate wheat crops and reduce entire countries to starvation.

He taught impoverished farmers worldwide how to grow healthier crops and is credited with starting the “Green Revolution” — preventing the global famine many scientists and demographers had predicted as a result of world population growth after World War II.

Dr. Borlaug and my mother, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, were friends for years. He was a founding director of her organization, the American Council on Science and Health. And in 2003 I had the honor of meeting him.

Dr. Borlaug’s work is recognized on The West Wing

After his death, world leaders paid Dr. Borlaug tribute, and there are dozens of articles that do a far better job than I can summing up his accomplishments (in particular, a fantastic piece in the Wall Street Journal.) But I can tell you that it was a privilege to know him, and that he will be missed by our family for both his intellect and his personal kindness.

The fact that most American’s don’t know his name is not to say that Dr. Borlaug didn’t get recognition while he was alive. As mentioned, he won three of the highest honors our world has to offer, and (even more impressively for some of its avid viewers) he was recognized in an episode of the hit TV series, The West Wing.

A rap was even made in his honor — and the terrific lyrics sum things up nicely:

Straight out of Iowa Norman came
traveled the world and saw suffering and pain
Millions of people were starving, yo
in Pakistan, India and Mexico

But just a few years after Norman came
they all had rockin’ crops of grain
Norman found the great solution
known as the Green Revolution

Millions of people are alive today
because of work done by the man named… Norman…

So please take a moment to read a few articles about and tributes to Dr. Borlaug. [See the box with links.] We live in a more peaceful, well-fed and prosperous world because of him. And now you know his name.

Originally published September 21, 2009.