The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Brown, William Lacy
(July 16, 1913–March 8, 1991)

–plant breeder, cytogeneticist, and businessman—was born into a family of West Virginia hill farmers in Arbovale, West Virginia, and grew up on a Greenbrier Valley livestock farm. He attended the local rural grammar school, followed by high school in the nearby community of Green Bank. He developed an interest in biology while in high school, and was also a star athlete in football, basketball, and track. Following graduation, he enrolled at Bridgewater College, a small liberal arts school in the hills of western Virginia. Class president and captain of the football and basketball teams, he graduated with a degree in biology. Following a year of graduate work at Texas A&M University, he transferred to Washington University (St. Louis), where he majored in cytogenetics and taxonomy and earned his M.A. (1939) and Ph.D. (1941). He studied under Edgar Anderson, who later became his colleague, and lived in the Andersons' home, considering Edgar and his wife, Dorothy, his second parents. The Andersons introduced Brown to Quaker philosophy, which was to influence him deeply throughout his life.

    In August 1941 Brown married Alice Hannah, a high school classmate. They had two children, Alicia Anne and William Tilden. For the next couple of years, Brown worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a cytogeneticist, leaving the USDA in 1942 to work for the Rogers Brothers Seed Company in Olivia, Minnesota, as the director of a sweet corn breeding program. While there, he gained valuable experience toward the next step in his career. In 1945 he accepted a position as geneticist in the Corn Breeding Department of the Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company in Des Moines, later known as Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.

    From the beginning of his career with Pioneer, Brown concentrated on the collection and conservation of exotic maize geoplasm. He traveled throughout the southern United States and the Caribbean to collect and save varieties before they became extinct. He also looked for potential sources of superior germplasm for U.S. maize production. His skill in selecting higher-yielding plants resulted in Pioneer's development of many outstanding hybrids, which increased corn production worldwide and had profound effects on global geoplasm policy.

    Through their association with Pioneer, Brown and Henry A. Wallace became good friends and collaborators. Their collaborative work led to the publication of Corn and Its Early Fathers in 1956. Brown also continued his collaboration with Edgar Anderson. Together they published their landmark studies, The Northern Flint Corns (1947) and The Southern Dent Corns (1948).

    In 1975 Brown was named president of Pioneer Hi-Bred, and in 1976 was made president and CEO. He served as chairman of the board and CEO until 1981, and as chairman from 1981 until his retirement in 1984. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1980.

    During his retirement, Brown chaired the National Research Council's Board on Agriculture and Renewable Resources (1982- 1988). He also conducted a research program on the cytology and evolutionary history of a Native American maize variety with the intent to restore it for use by the tribe that originally developed it. He served two terms on the Board of Education for the City of Johnston, and was a member of the Johnston Planning and Zoning Commission for 10 years. He was the driving force behind a master plan for growth and development, which included as much green space as possible and protected the natural floodplain.

    Although genetics applied to plant breeding was Brown's profession, botany was his avocation. He was a keen gardener and horticulturist, growing a diverse mixture of useful fruits and vegetables and exotic trees and shrubs.

    William and Alice Brown joined the Society of Friends soon after their move to Des Moines. They were active in their local meeting and also in the national American Friends Service Committee.

    William L. Brown died of emphysema on March 8, 1991, at the age of 77. In his tribute to Brown in the Congressional Record on March 14, 1991, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin said that the early corn varieties released by Pioneer during Brown's years as scientific director "set the genetic stage for the explosion that has occurred in Iowa's agricultural productivity over the last three decades."
Sources include Isabel Shipley Cunningham, "William L. Brown: A Lasting Legacy," Diversity 8 (1992), 15–22; and a Des Moines Register obituary by Don Muhm, 3/9/1991.
Contributor: Helen Dagley