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This 101-year-old scientist may have created your new favorite tomato

Ashley Stimpson
Special to the Washington Post

Morgantown, W.Va. - On a morning in late May, a group of volunteers gathers at West Virginia University’s Organic Research Farm in Morgantown, a rippling plot of land northeast of campus. For the next three hours, as an ornery donkey screeches in the valley below, seven pairs of muddy boots trek back and forth across the field, stretching black plastic sheeting, fiddling with irrigation lines and tucking tomato seedlings into the ground.

But there is one pair of boots missing.

Teri Koster, an agriculture lead at WVU Organic Farm, shovels soil on top of a weed barrier as farm intern Hailey Lane holds the sheeting taut around the row of just-planted tomato starts.

You may not have heard of Mannon Gallegly, but chances are you’ve eaten one of his tomatoes, and perhaps even grown one in your garden. More than 60 years ago, Gallegly bred the first tomato that could stand up to Phytophthora infestans, otherwise known as tomato blight. The West Virginia ’63, sometimes called “the people’s tomato,” is still a seed-catalogue superstar and beloved around the world, gracing gardens from Alabama to Africa.

This year marks the first time since 1949 that Gallegly, who moved into a nursing home after falling ill in the spring, has missed the annual planting. Back then, the seedlings were sown in the garden of nearby Huttonsville Correctional Center, where inmates provided free labor.

This morning’s planters are a mix of graduate students from WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture - where Gallegly worked for 38 years - and volunteers who have known the plant pathologist for decades. Gallegly developed three more hardy tomato varieties since 1963, each of which has claimed a spot in this year’s field, including his latest and likely his last.

More than 60 years ago, Mannon Gallegly bred the first tomato that could stand up to Phytophthora infestans, otherwise known as tomato blight.

After the college publicized the release of the tomato, called Mannon’s Majesty, earlier this year - noting that it was free for any West Virginian who wanted seeds, per Gallegly’s insistence - WVU’s greenhouse manager Whitney Dudding came to work the next Monday morning to find 2,000 email orders waiting in her inbox, a number that far outstripped availability.

Many of the tomatoes being planted this morning will provide seeds to fulfill those requests.

Until very recently, Dudding held out hope Gallegly might make it to the organic farm for the occasion. A few weeks beforehand, when she visited him in the nursing home, planting seedings was very much on the centenarian’s mind. “We got to get these tomatoes in the ground,” he told her.

“Every year, even last year, he’s been out there on the soft soil, out there in the heat, walking around, right there with us,” she says. “I really don’t know how he does it.”

A tray of extra tomato starts sits along one of the rows of recently planted tomatoes at the WVU Organic Farm in Morgantown, W.Va.

Humble roots

The son of a carpenter and a school dietitian, Gallegly grew up in the rural southwest corner of Arkansas. “We were pretty poor people,” he says. During the Great Depression, his parents grew cotton on rented land, where Gallegly logged the first of many hours spent walking between crop rows.

A teacher from Future Farmers of America inspired Gallegly to attend college, and a Sears Roebuck scholarship made it financially feasible. After graduating from the University of Arkansas with a degree in agriculture, Gallegly went to the University of Wisconsin to get his master’s in plant pathology, working on a rice disease called white tip.

In June 1949, Gallegly arrived in Morgantown, initially unimpressed by the area’s “awful” mountain roads. “We went around and around and around,” he says. Still, these were happy times for the 26-year-old, newly minted scientist.

“That was my favorite month,” he recalls. “I had a new job, I had a new wife, I had a new baby.” He also had a new three-acre research farm on the grounds of the nearby medium-security prison, where he could conduct trials on plant diseases, including tomato blight.

By the following summer, Gallegly’s fields swayed with potato and tomato plants of all different varieties. Then disaster struck. “The disease farmers and gardeners feared most” arrived, he says: late blight. The pathogen leaves ugly brown bruises stretching across the leaves, stem and fruit until the plant looks like it’s been blasted with a blow torch.

That year, Gallegly lost nearly his entire crop of tomatoes to late blight - except for a few wild varieties with tiny fruit that showed a curious resistance to the disease.

‘The people’s tomato’

In the 1950s, late blight was more than just an annoyance for the home gardener. In the right conditions, Phytophthora infestans, which is Greek for “plant destroyer,” can wipe out entire food supplies, as it did during the 1840s, when about 1 million people starved during the Irish Potato Famine. For growers in West Virginia, which leads the nation in small, family farms, a bad Phytophthora infestation can be devastating.

For 13 years, Gallegly worked on developing an indestructible tomato, crossing those initial wild varieties that showed genetic resistance to blight with popular commercial tomatoes including Rutgers, Wisconsin 55 and some Campbell Soup varieties.

“[Each year], I had tomatoes spread out on a three-acre field, and I walked every row, looked at every plant,” he says. “Then I’d pick a ripe tomato, slice it, and taste it.” If the tomato didn’t pass the taste test - regardless of how disease-resistant it seemed - he threw it out.

Finally, he stumbled upon a variety that was both blight-resistant and delicious. “Good things happen sometimes,” he says.

Gallegly, who primarily views himself as a public servant, called his creation “the people’s tomato.” When it was released to the public in 1963 as part of the state’s centennial celebration it was given a new name: the West Virginia ’63.

It remains a favorite. In 2013, when the WVU Extension Office offered up free packets of seeds to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the tomato’s release, more than 19,000 requests poured in. The demand far exceeded supply - and overwhelmed Extension staff, who called it “the seed gold rush.”

Dudding says that of the 2,000 seed orders she received last winter for Mannon’s Majesty, many came with a personal note, “especially about the ’63. There are a lot of out-of-state alumni who are missing a taste of West Virginia.”

A lifelong pursuit

Gallegly retired in 1986, but that didn’t stop him from coming into work every day.

“Even in the lunchroom, it always came back to Phytophthora,” says Mark Double, a retired WVU plant pathologist and a volunteer at the planting in May. “I don’t care what we were talking about, Phytophthora was just in his blood.”

In 2008, when he was 85, Gallegly published a seminal book on Phytophthora. He also continued to breed tomatoes.

In 2017, he released the West Virginia ’17a, known as the Mountaineer Pride, and the West Virginia ’17b, or Mountaineer Delight. Both tomatoes were bred using West Virginia ’63 as the parent fruit and boasted resistance to late blight as well as to Septoria leaf spot, a defoliating disease that exposes the fruit to sunburn. Gallegly, however, wasn’t wholly satisfied with the plants’ ability to withstand the latter (it was recommended that growers use fungicide to fully protect the plant) so he kept breeding. In January of this year, Mannon’s Majesty was unveiled to the public.

In addition to writing books and breeding tomatoes, Gallegly has mentored countless plant pathologists getting their start in Morgantown. Dudding, who has helped Gallegly with cultivating diseases (to test for resistance in plants) and crossbreeding, “because my hands were smaller and steadier than his,” says the scientist “is never in a hurry. He has always had time to talk to me and teach me.”

WVU graduate student Inty Hernández, who’s been working with Gallegly on breeding new tomatoes, agrees, saying: “He’s very supportive all the time. It has been very inspiring to work with him. Sometimes you feel tired, you know, and then you arrive to the greenhouse and there’s a 100-year-old man hard at work.”

Plans for the future

Just a few miles down the road from the WVU Organic Research Farm, at the Sundale Nursing Home, Gallegly sits in a brightly lit common space, next to a table crowded with magazines and colored pencils. Above the swirls of his gray hair, a muted TV broadcasts a daytime talk show.

Dudding and Double have changed out of their muddy boots and arrived for a visit.

“Your tomatoes are in, buddy!” says Double, proudly holding up a photo on his cellphone.

Gallegly’s pale eyes register relief. He asks Dudding if the team will be sure to hold back as much seed as possible for West Virginians.

Still, Gallegly, who likes his tomatoes sliced fresh with a pinch of salt, is hoping he’ll be the one deseeding tomatoes later this summer, carving them out of the fruit with his trusty long-bladed knife.

“I’m hoping when I’m well enough, I can walk those rows and make some selections,” he says. “I’ve got an impression in my mind of what a good tomato should look like and taste like.”

When asked to describe that impression, Gallegly doesn’t hesitate.

“A tomato,” he says.

Ashley Stimpson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Md.