a man for all seasons
With the passing of Dr. Ralph W. Cummings in June, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences lost one of its most distinguished alumni, a man renowned as a leader of the Green Revolution that fed millions of people worldwide. He was 89.
Cummings, who was born on a 300-acre farm in Monroeton, graduated first in his class at Reidsville High School in 1928. He was a 1933 graduate of N.C. State, with a B.S. degree in soil science, and he earned his 1938 doctorate in soil science at The Ohio State University. Cummings served on the soil technology faculty at Cornell University from 1937 to 1942, then returned to N.C. State as head of the Agronomy Department. He was appointed assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station in 1945 and served as director from 1950 to 1954.
“We had in North Carolina some of the settings for the kind of situations in many of the developing countries,” Cummings recalled in a 1991 interview with the NCSU Alumni Magazine. “It began to put in the minds of people that science could transform agriculture. I got a vision of what could be done in underdeveloped countries.”
In 1955, Cummings organized and headed the university’s technical assistance program in Peru for two years. That began his career of world leadership in fighting hunger. Cummings advanced soil science research and education not only in Peru, but in India and other developing countries through positions he held with the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
From 1956 to 1966, working in India for the Rockefeller Foundation, Cummings helped build research programs and eight agricultural research universities. These aided the nation in becoming self-sufficient in corn and wheat production. Among their innovations, Cummings and his team of scientists in India developed a system that made it possible to grow crops during the monsoon season. Also during this time, Cummings arranged the first import of high-yielding wheat varieties (developed by his colleague, Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for that contribution) which transformed India’s agriculture.
In 1968, he returned to N.C. State as administrative dean of research, serving till 1971, when he became an adjunct professor, then an emeritus professor in 1977. In the 1970s, he headed new international crop research institutes in the Philippines and India. He afterward was in charge of an international network devoted to improving the world’s food supply. He continued into his 80s as an international research consultant.
Dr. Lawrence Apple, retired professor in the Plant Pathology Department, said Cummings played a significant role in the Green Revolution — the application of modern technology to improve agricultural productivity in the developing world. “He was just a great person in every respect,” Apple said.
It was a greatness recognized worldwide. Cummings received the International Agricultural Service Award from the American Society of Agronomy and the 1988 Presidential End Hunger Award from USAID. The government of India named its central cereal research laboratory for Cummings, lauding his monumental contributions to the country, in 1966. He received honorary doctorates from N.C. State and Ohio State, as well as from three universities in India. He has been listed in American Men of Science, North Carolina Lives, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.
Cummings stayed active with his alma mater as a faithful attendee at the “Forever Club” reunions at the annual Alumni Weekend, at the university’s Founders’ Day annual celebrations and at College of Agriculture and Life Sciences seminars and events. In 1995 the university awarded him its highest nonacademic honor, the Watauga Medal, and the Alumni Association honored him with its 1991 Alumni Meritorious Service Award.
The North Carolina Agricultural Foundation Inc. is accepting contributions in Cummings’ memory to fund scholarships for students in agriculture.