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Fall 2009
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Alumni Legacy Helps Feed the World

By Ted Boscia

Grace and Jack Nichols

Grace and Jack Nichols

During his three-decade career with the federal government, including the USDA, Andrew “Jack” Nichols ’34 planted his knowledge of farming on multiple continents.

As a food aid administrator, he helped postwar Germany rebuild its agricultural infrastructure during the 1940s. Soon after, Nichols documented efforts to introduce hybrid corn to war-torn Italy to feed its citizens. Upon his return to the United States, he studied at Harvard University under a Carnegie Fellowship program aimed at agricultural extension professionals. In later years, he prepared USDA case studies on agricultural technology transfer and extension education in India and Iran and across Latin America.

“Jack was a farm boy from upstate New York who ended up traveling the globe in the name of agriculture,” says his nephew John P. Nichols ’63, PhD ’69. “He saw extension as a means to serve the world.”

A bequest to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences by Nichols and his wife, Grace, is supporting research in that same land-grant tradition. Through their estate, the couple endowed the Andrew J. and Grace B. Nichols Professorship, following Grace’s death in 2007, and 10 years after Jack’s passing. Alan Collmer, PhD ‘81, professor of plant pathology, was recently named to the position.

Collmer, known for his fundamental studies in how bacteria sabotage plant hosts to cause disease, describes his research goal as “developing better ways to protect crops.” He helped pioneer the use of molecular methods in plant pathology and led a team of scientists to sequence the genome of Pseudomonas syringae, a stealth pathogen that devastates tomato plants. Their discovery of the pathogen’s full arsenal of virulence proteins helps scientists develop plants with stronger defenses.

“Cornell plant pathologists have a long tradition of training leaders in research, education, extension, science policy, and industry, and the Nichols Professorship will help me continue this tradition of excellence,” says Collmer. He adds that the endowment will allow him to support more graduate students, who will leave Cornell equipped to improve agriculture in many parts of the world.

Reinforcing plant defenses through molecular genetics is a major advancement from Jack Nichols’ roots as a county agricultural agent in Orleans County 75 years ago. Yet his nephew says Jack would appreciate the work in Collmer’s lab. “He knew that to feed the world, you have to protect the plants,” says John Nichols.