John S. Niederhauser was a renowned plant pathologist who spent nearly three decades working for Rockefeller Foundation (RF) agricultural programs in Mexico. He earned international acclaim (and the nickname "Mr. Potato") for his extensive research, education, and collaboration on potato development programs and global food production challenges.
Niederhauser was born in Seattle, Washington on September 27, 1916. In 1933 he received a scholarship to attend Deep Springs College in California, which featured a three-year program combining traditional academic study and farm labor. After completing his third year at Deep Springs, Niederhauser was eager to travel. He bought a steamship ticket to the Soviet Union and spent the summer working on a collective farm in the Ukrainian countryside. At the invitation of Russian plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, Niederhauser spent a year studying at the Timiryazev All-Union Academy for Agricultural Sciences in Moscow before returning to the United States in the fall of 1936. He finished his undergraduate work at Cornell University in 1939 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell in 1943.
In 1946, Niederhauser joined the RF's Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP) which focused on improving Mexican agricultural yields. Working under the direction of plant pathologist George Harrar, Niederhauser initially studied diseases in wheat, maize, and beans. He soon narrowed his focus to Mexican potato production.
In 1952, Harrar created a potato production program under Niederhauser's direction. The program sought to increase Mexican potato yields and investigate potato diseases, and was successful on both fronts. Niederhauser discovered that late blight, the potato disease responsible for the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, originated in Mexico. He also determined that resistance to late blight disease could be found in inedible wild potato species, which allowed him to breed new resistant potato varieties. His work dramatically increased potato yields in Mexico and around the world.
Niederhauser worked diligently to educate fellow scientists about potato production and foster global collaborations to address food production challenges. He formed the Inter-American Potato Program, a unit within the Inter-American Food Crop Improvement Program created by the RF in 1961. In 1966, the name was changed to the International Potato Improvement Program to encompass the program's expanding global efforts. Niederhauser then went on to co-found the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, in 1971, before resigning from the RF in 1973. In 1978 he helped establish the Regional Cooperative Potato Program (PRECODEPA) to foster regional collaboration between agricultural programs in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Niederhauser was awarded the World Food Prize in 1990 for his work to develop disease-resistant potato varieties and increase worldwide potato production.
John Niederhauser died on August 12, 2005. The Rockefeller Foundation Agricultural Program Oral History Interview with John S. Niederhauser can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center.