West Virginia University professor emeritus Mannon Gallegly will turn 90 years old this April, but you can still find him stooped over the tomato fields he first planted in 1950 when he came to the school as a newly minted Ph.D.
Back then, farmers in the area had a terrible problem with tomato blight, a fungal pathogen called Phytophthora infestans that kills off the plants. It's the same pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine in the 19th century, and it nearly wiped out the first crop of tomatoes that Gallegly planted at WVU. "This was the disease farmers and gardeners feared most," he recently told the school's alumni magazine.
But a few of the tomatoes Gallegly planted that year survived the blight. He realized they had a resistance to the pathogen. He set out to create an indestructible tomato that could survive the blight on its own, without the use of harmful chemicals. "The primary mission of a plant pathologist is to help farmers control diseases and prevent losses in their crops," Gallegly said. "We can approach it by using spray materials and spray, spray, spray. But the public prefers nonchemical approaches. So, in order to develop a control for a plant disease, we wanted to do away with chemicals."
Thirteen years later, after crossbreeding many wild tomato varieties, he had it: a blight-free tomato that would survive the pathogen, helping both farmers and consumers to enjoy safe and tasty tomatoes. Unveiled in 1963 during West Virginia's centennial celebration, it has alternately been called the "people's tomato" and the "West Virginia '63."
And now, to commemorate the indestructible tomato's 50th anniversary, WVU gave away a limited number of seeds.
Gallegly says the tomato is not just hardy, it tastes great. "Ummmmm mmmmmm. That's about as good as I can describe the taste," he told the alumni magazine. "It's a little sweet, sweeter than the normal tomato."
You can see Gallegly at work in his tomato field and learn more about the people's tomato in this WVU video below:
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