No brief obituary could possibly do justice to the memory of John Niederhauser, potato scientist, World Food Prize Laureate 1990, and founding board member of The Potato Museum, The FOOD Museum's originating source. John was 88 when he died in his sleep on August 12, 2005 at his home in Tucson, Arizona.
We last saw him in March, and he was up to his usual hilarious and insightful quips and quirks, discussing politics, world hunger, his beloved Mexico, and, of course, the potato, the vegetable that claimed his attention throughout his long career.
There was never a quality shaggy dog story or brief one-liner John did not appreciate, and worse, remember, in full detail. We doubt anyone ever stopped him when he would begin genially," You know the one about the duck and the anti-freeze.......please tell me if you've heard this..." because his story-telling skills were superlative.
A tall man who had been a precocious boy in Central Washington State, and top student at Cornell, earning his PhD in plant pathology in 1943, he went on to be a Rockefeller-funded scientist based in the highlands west of Mexico City. There he determined that the potato strain responsible for late-blight had originated in Mexico where wild varieties had genetic resistance to the pathogen. For 30 years he and his team worked to develop resistant potato varieties that subsistence farmers could grow, thus cutting down on expensive fungicides while also reducing their environmental impact. ( While in Mexico he also found time to become the founder and president of Little League baseball from 1954 to 1969, and the Latin American Commissioner from 1957 to 1969. )
Not only was potato production hugely increased in Mexico, but programs in Turkey, Bangladesh, India, Colombia and Pakistan were able to boost production four to eight times. John went on to help establish the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, and several other global agriculture initiatives.
John's wife, Ann Faber Niederhauser, with whom he raised six children, was his companion and support in all endeavors. A gifted weaver not only of rugs and cloth, but also of memorable gatherings of family and friends, Ann died in 2000.