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Remembering the ‘Maharaja of wheat’

Dr Sanjaya Rajaram in the field in 2014.
Photo: University of Sydney

It was with great sadness that all those involved in the industry learned of the passing of Dr Sanjaya Rajaram, at the age of 78, on 17 February in Mexico. Dr Rajaram, the “Maharaja of wheat”, worked for many years with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, guiding the development of more than 480 high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat cultivars that were sown on 58 million hectares in more than 50 countries.

Such was the reach of his program that Dr Rajaram, who was affectionately known as “Raj” by his colleagues, has been described by some as the most successful wheat breeder of all time. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 2014, in recognition of his lifetime’s work in wheat improvement.

Dr Rajaram grew up on a small farm in north-eastern India. After studying genetics and plant breeding in Delhi, he moved to Australia to undertake a PhD in rust genetics at the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute (PBI). He was then appointed to a wheat breeding position at CIMMYT, where he worked very closely with Dr Norman Borlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Such was the reach of his program that Dr Rajaram, who was affectionately known as “Raj” by his colleagues, has been described by some as the most successful wheat breeder of all time.

Dr Rajaram’s PhD studies at the PBI were funded by the Rotary Club of Narrabri. A humble man, he always acknowledged the impact this opportunity had on his life. His PhD focused on the genetic characterisation of stem rust and leaf rust resistance in several wheat cultivars, including Gamut and Timgalen. The latter was found to have complex resistance to stem rust based on five genes that included Sr5Sr6Sr8a and Sr36. In publishing this work, he concluded that his results “suggested that, as a general principle, plant breeders should aim at a broad genetic base in resistant cultivars”, a principle that was a hallmark of his long career as a wheat breeder and which remains the central principle of developing rust resistant cereals.

Dr Ravi Singh, the head of the wheat improvement program at CIMMYT, says Dr Rajaram “built a generation of wheat breeders at CIMMYT, ICARDA (the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) and national research institutions, who are carrying on his legacy and ensuring that new wheat varieties continue to reach farmers”.

PBI director Professor Richard Trethowan, who worked alongside Dr Rajaram for 13 years at CIMMYT, says “Raj” always had time for others. “Raj was happiest in the field. If you had anything difficult to ask it was always good policy to do so out in the wheat plots. These fields were his office and his second home. It was from here that his legacy was created.”

Dr Rajaram, who died from COVID-19, is survived by his wife and three children.

More information: Robert Park, 02 9351 8806, robert.park@sydney.edu.au

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