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Sprague, George Frederick

Published onJul 30, 2021
Sprague, George Frederick

(September 3, 1902 - November 24, 1998)

Quick Facts

Plant pathologist, hybrid corn breeder and geneticist.

George Frederick Sprague was born in Crete, Nebraska. In 1924 he received a BS in agriculture and in 1926 an MS in agronomy from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. In 1930 Sprague received a PhD in genetics from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Between 1924 and 1929 Sprague was junior agronomist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Between 1924 and 1934 he was an assistant agronomist at the USDA. Between 1934 and 1939 he was associate agronomist with the USDA at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Between 1939 and 1958 he was agronomist with the USDA at Iowa State College (now University) in Ames. Between 1958 and 1972 Sprague was leader of corn and sorghum investigations with the USDA in Washington, D.C. In his later years with the USDA Sprague proved himself an able administrator, though even then he pursued his research on corn and other crops. Retiring from the USDA in 1972, he joined the University of Illinois at Urbana as professor of plant breeding and genetics.

Sprague rose to world renown for his work in breeding disease resistant, high yielding crops. His major contribution was to corn breeding. His breeding techniques were of his own design and were effective. Sprague conducted both basic and applied research, though because of his work with crops, his practical research has tended to overshadow his theoretical contributions to the agricultural sciences. Sprague believed that basic research, given time and opportunity, would lead to practical results and for that reason should never be neglected. It is important to note that not all scientists shared his assessment of the relationship between basic and applied science, though it has been important to convince policymakers that basic science yields practical results to secure government funding. In addition to his contributions to basic and applied science, Sprague was a gifted teacher and mentor who trained a large number of crop breeders who have advanced Sprague’s legacy worldwide. His students have founded their own breeding programs throughout the world.

Sprague was an early proponent and breeder of hybrid corn, arguably the most significant achievement of applied science in the 20th century. his work and that of other crop breeders appears to have postponed the Malthusian crisis for some years, though the recent leveling off of yields suggests that this crisis cannot be postponed indefinitely. Sprague was among the first to use mathematical models in the quest to breed better varieties of corn and other crops. Not only did he breed high yielding corn, Sprague also improved its nutritional value. In particular Sprague improved the quality and quantity of protein in corn, an achievement that University of Illinois agronomist Cyril George Hopkins had shown to be possible in the early 20th century. Several of his corn inbreds, notably B14 and B37, were widely used in making hybrid crosses. In 1973 some 70 percent of hybrids grown in the Corn Belt had one or both inbreds in their pedigree. At Iowa State College Sprague developed high protein varieties of corn. He was among the first to prove the value of recurrent selection in breeding corn with specific traits. Also at Iowa State College, Sprague bred waxy hybrids that the U.S. military used as a substitute for tapioca during World War II. At Iowa State his course on corn breeding attracted students worldwide. Sprague mentored more than 50 MS and PhD candidates.

 As a consultant with the Rockefeller Foundation, Sprague traveled the world to promote the value of the agricultural sciences. After World War II he worked with the Marshall Plan to help Europe adopt hybrid corn. In the 1960s he collaborated with African scientists to try to make the continent self sufficient in food production. Under his editorship, the volume Corn and Corn Improvement became the standard treatment of the state of corn science for a generation of breeders. So popular was the book that later editions followed. His seven-decade career traversed the origin of hybrid corn to the early years of biotechnology. His first publication appeared in the prestigious Journal of Heredity in 1927. Between 1927 and 1983 Sprague published more than 130 peer-reviewed articles. He was a proponent of genetic engineering, a topic that continues to generate controversy. Corn breeder Arnel R. Hallauer ranked Sprague one of America’s leading corn breeders.

 In 1947 Sprague was elected fellow of the American Society of Agronomy. Ten years later the American Society of Agronomy honored him with the Crop Science Award. The next year he received a faculty citation from the Iowa State Alumni Association, the Gamma Sigma Delta Superior Teaching Award from Iowa State College (now University), and an honorary doctor of science from the University of Nebraska. In 1959 and 1965 the USDA gave Sprague the distinguished and superior service award. In 1960 he was corresponding academician at the Academia di Agricoltura de Bologna in Italy. Also that year Sprague was vice president and president of the American Society of Agronomy and in 1961 president of the Crop Science Society of America. In 1968 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1972 Sprague received the National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders award. Sprague won the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 1978 for his work in plant pathology and the breeding of disease resistant crops.

Sprague died in 1998 of natural causes in Eugene, Oregon. He was survived by two daughters (Phyllis Lance of Iowa City, Iowa, and Judy Sprague of Eugene, Oregon), two sons (Don of Ames, Iowa, and George of Eugene, Oregon), and two grandchildren.

Selected Sources

Ilan Chet. ed. Wolf Prize in Agriculture. New Jersey: World Scientific, 2009.

Peter A. Peterson and Angelo Bianchi. eds. Maize Genetics and Breeding in the 20th Century. Singapore: World Scientific, 1999.

Arnel R. Hallauer. GEORGE FREDERICK SPRAGUE 1902–1998, A Biographical Memoir. Published by the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000. Available online at

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