Born in Painesville, Ohio, in 1906, George Harrar spent most of his childhood in nearby Youngstown. He entered Oberlin College at age 16, where he distinguished himself not only as a student but also as a track star. Upon graduating in 1928, Harrar considered entering medical school, but the Depression rendered such an education too expensive. Instead, he supported himself as a teaching fellow at Iowa State University while he earned his M.S. in biology, specializing in plant pathology. In 1929 he embarked on a four-year term as a professor and head of the biology department at the University of Puerto Rico, an experience he later credited with sparking his interest in Latin American language and culture.
Harrar returned to graduate school in 1934 as a Firestone Fellow at the University of Minnesota, where he researched diseases in rubber plants for Firestone’s Liberian plant. After completing his Ph.D. in 1935, Harrar taught biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute until 1941 and then moved to Washington State College in 1942, where he chaired the department of plant pathology and headed the division of plant pathology at the college’s Agricultural Experiment Station.
In 1943 the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) asked Harrar to become local director of its new Mexican Agricultural Program. Harrar proved especially well-suited to the institutional culture of the Foundation, and devoted the rest of his career to it, serving as Deputy Director for Agriculture (1951), Director of Agriculture (1955), Vice President of the Foundation (1959), and, beginning in 1961, as trustee and President, positions he held until his 1972 retirement.
Harrar’s signal qualities, evidenced throughout his tenure at the Foundation, were diplomacy, persistence, and an eye for talent. In Mexico he was renowned for his rapport with government officials, for including officers’ wives in the Foundation’s information loop, and for appointing high-quality staff, many of whom continued with the Foundation for years. A strong-willed administrator, Harrar was instrumental to the successful development and dissemination of high-yield wheat, a technique that would spread worldwide, encompass other grains, and eventually becoming an important element in the “Green Revolution.” He oversaw the transfer of this concept to Asia when he spurred the Foundation to co-found the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines with the Ford Foundation and USAID. He also guided the Foundation’s expansions into Indian and African agriculture.
Assuming the presidency of the Foundation two years before its 50th anniversary gave Harrar the opportunity to update programs and purposes. He spearheaded the Foundation’s 1963 reorganization, the first major reorganization since 1928. His five-point plan crossed disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of overarching thematic goals. For example, the social, agricultural, natural, and medical sciences now worked together on a program entitled “Toward the Conquest of Hunger.”
Harrar led the Foundation through some of its most generous years, as the flourishing economy of the 1960s enabled the value of assets to soar and the rate of giving to rise. Yet he also presided during the upheaval wrought by the Tax Reform Act of 1969. Heated debates over this proposed legislation compelled Harrar to serve as an outspoken defender of philanthropic foundations in general, and of the Rockefeller Foundation’s own ethics and transparency.
From 1973 to 1979, Harrar chaired the Governing Council of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC). He was a member of countless committees, boards, and organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Near East Foundation. He served on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s General Advisory Committee on Foreign Assistance Programs, the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations, and was part of the 1973 Scientific Delegation to the People’s Republic of China. He received innumerable awards from nations in which he had worked and more than a dozen honorary degrees.
George Harrar died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in Scarsdale, New York, in 1982. His papers can be accessed at the RAC, and his officer's diaries are digitized and accessible through the Archive Center's online collections.