Sir Bent Skovmand, PhD, the Knight of Denmark, fought for the good of humanity up until his passing due to complications from a brain tumor on February 6, 2007, in Kävlinge, Sweden.1 He was 61 years old. Whether he was protesting against the patenting of genes or preparing for the replanting of crucial seeds at the ‘doomsday vault,’2 he was preoccupied with making the future a better place for humankind. Richard Zeyen, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota (U of M) Department of Plant Pathology and friend of almost 40 years, said Dr. Skovmand’s devotion to humanity was easy to explain: “Simple, he was a preacher’s son” (oral communication, April 18, 2007).
Skovmand was born on January 25, 1945, in Copenhagen, Denmark. He came to the U of M through a student agricultural training program in 1966. There he earned his BS, MS, and PhD degrees from the university in plant pathology.
Dr. Zeyen and Dr. Skovmand first met when Skovmand responded to Zeyen’s flier requesting an assistant for a research project in the campus greenhouse. He was impressed with Skovmand’s “European charm” and maturity from the beginning: “He wasn’t your typical 19-year-old,” Dr. Zeyen said. “He knew his goal was international agriculture,” and like other leaders in the field, such as George Harrar and Norman Borlaug, he came out of what Zeyen calls “that tiny little department” in plant pathology.
After earning his doctorate, Dr. Skovmand moved to El Batan, Mexico, and for the next 20 years he worked for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) under Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug. Dr. Skovmand participated in research attempting to make wheat more resistant to disease and eventually headed the center’s Wheat Genetic Resources Program. It was then that he was noticed by Queen Margarethe II of Denmark, who in 2003 knighted him for his achievements in wheat research. However, because of his opinions on gene patenting, his position there was abruptly terminated. He told the The New York Times that patenting genes was “like copyrighting each and every word in Hamlet, and saying no one can use [any of them] without paying the author.”3
“In a 10-day period, his position was terminated by CIMMYT, he was knighted by the Queen of Denmark, and he began negotiations leading to his appointment as director of the Nordic Gene Bank,” said Dr. Zeyen. “It was the gene patenting that did it. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
As director of the Nordic Gene Bank, Dr. Skovmand led the Swedish effort to collect and conserve the seeds of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland for the international vault that has been nicknamed the ‘doomsday vault.’2 The Svalbard International Seed Vault is currently being built into the side of a mountain in the Norwegian Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic Ocean. It will be the world’s largest when it opens in September 2007.4 Reminiscent of a concrete bomb shelter, the vault will refrigerate 3 million kinds of seeds and help to repopulate certain crucial plant species in the happenstance of nuclear war, global warming, or any catastrophe that could obliterate the world’s crops. For more information on the Svalbard International Seed Vault, see the sidebar on page 37.
“But he wasn’t the starry-eyed ‘save the world’ type,” said Dr. Zeyen. “He saw the world through the lens of a pragmatist. He knew if he didn’t collect these things now, they’d be lost.”
Despite his practical streak and scientific mind, Dr. Skovmand often sprinkled his scientific jargon with literary analogies from Shakespeare and other authors. Hamlet probably appealed to him most of all. “What can I say?” Dr. Zeyen said. “He was a Dane.”
Bent Skovmand is survived by his wife Eugenia, his three daughters Kirsten, Annelise, and Astrid, and his son Francisco. The Skovmand family created a fellowship in his name for a graduate student in the Department of Plant Pathology at U of M. Donations for the Bent Skovmand Fellowship can be made online at www.umn.edu by selecting “make a gift” and typing in “Bent Skovmand Fellowship.”
—Kelly E. Saxton
- Zeyen R. Sir Bent Skovmand an internationally renowned plant scientist and conservationist. Phytopathology News. 2007;41(4):44.
- Martin D. Bent Skovmand, planner of the ‘Fort Knox’ for seeds. New York Times. February 14, 2007;11.
- Depalma A. Texcoco Journal: the ‘slippery slope’ of patenting farmers’ crops. New York Times. May 24, 2000;4.
- Bent Skovmand, Plant Scientist. The Washington Post. February 19, 2007;BO6.