WVU Tomato Breeder Supplies W.Va. And Now The World
For 71 years, West Virginia University plant pathologist Mannon Gallegly has tinkered with tomatoes. He created the “West Virginia 63” tomato in honor of the state’s 100th birthday. And soon, his work will help developing countries marred by food supply issues around the world through an upcoming donation to the World Vegetable Center.
More importantly, the 98-year-old researcher at West Virginia University is still going strong in his gardens.
Eric Douglas spoke with him to find out more about his work.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Let's start with your background. Firstly, tell me how you got started in plants and then we'll move on to how you got started into tomatoes.
Gallegly: I came to WVU in 1949 as what I call a shaved-tail Ph.D. The research that was assigned to me in 1950 was diseases of vegetable crops. I planted potato trials and tomato trials that year but the blight hit me and wiped me out. I had zero yield of potatoes and tomatoes. It was so severe that understanding that was what I was going to work on for research. I had some tomato variety trials out in 1950. And in them were some wild tomatoes and there was some resistance there.
Douglas: You're crossing wild tomatoes with commercially grown tomatoes. What's lacking in the commercial tomatoes, or what was lacking in the commercial tomatoes, that you were looking for in the wilder breeds of tomatoes?
Gallegly: Commercial tomatoes were all susceptible to the disease and the wild tomatoes carried genetic resistance to the disease. In 1963, I used commercial grade varieties like Rutgers, Wisconsin 55 and some Campbell Soup varieties and came up with that wonderful “West Virginia 63” that's so tasty.
Douglas: What's the process for breeding tomatoes for either one or both qualities?
Gallegly: I didn't breed for taste. But I had a long-bladed knife and every selection I made from my crossers I've tasted myself. And if they were not good tasting varieties, I would throw them away. So that's where the taste came from.
Douglas: Let's talk about the World Vegetable Center and the donations you're doing through them.
Gallegly: The tomato breeder with the World Vegetable Center, which is in Taiwan, wrote to me to get the germplasm to include in his breeding for tomatoes for the developing countries around the world.
Douglas: You've now sent these most recent seeds to the world vegetable center...
Gallegly: Not yet because the country of Taiwan put a ban on importing tomato seeds and because of certain seed-borne diseases that Taiwan doesn't have. And so, the tomato major breeders are working on this to get these seeds for breeding purposes. And hopefully I will be able to send seed after I harvest this fall.
Douglas: Do you like tomatoes?
Gallegly: I love tomatoes. They don't like me if I eat too many of them because of diverticulosis. I eat them anyway,
Douglas: In your 71-year-career, what's your favorite accomplishment?
Breeding tomatoes resistant to plant disease is my favorite hobby. I've just loved working with them.
Douglas: So that begs the question, you're 98 years old, when do you plan on retiring?
Gallegly: Well, when I physically and mentally can't do it anymore.