Sterling Wortman began his career with the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) as a plant geneticist with the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP). He went on to become a leading figure in the Foundation's efforts to establish international agricultural research institutes in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wortman was born in Quinlan, Oklahoma on April 3, 1923. He earned his B.S. in agronomy from Oklahoma State University (1943) and Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Minnesota (1950). In 1950, Wortman was hired as a corn breeder in the Mexican Agricultural Program's corn improvement program. He left the MAP in 1955 to head the Plant Breeding Department at the Pineapple Research Institute in Honolulu, Hawaii, and returned to the RF in 1960.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations collaborated in creating several international agricultural research institutes to carry out MAP's pioneering agricultural work on a global scale. Wortman played a central role in these efforts. He helped launch the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, focused on researching and re-engineering the rice plant to increase rice production, and served as the IRRI's Assistant Director (1960-1962) and Associate Director (1962-1964). In his 1992 book An Adventure in Applied Science: A History of the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI Founding Director Robert F. Chandler, Jr. emphasized that "Wortman's contribution to the progress of IRRI in those early years cannot be overestimated."
The Foundation's success with IRRI spurred the development of additional international agricultural institutes and organizations. After his appointment as the RF's Director for Agricultural Sciences in 1966, Wortman helped reorganize the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico as private corporation. The move dramatically improved the Center's funding and efficacy. He helped establish the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 1971, which served to mobilize and coordinate public and private funding for international research centers. And after becoming a RF Vice-President in 1970, Wortman helped establish the International Agricultural Development Service (IADS), which worked to strengthen agricultural programs in developing nations. He served as the President of IADS from 1975 to 1979.
Wortman assumed the role of the Foundation's Acting President after the death of President John H. Knowles in March 1979. He left his full-time work with the RF after Stanford University President Richard W. Lyman was appointed President in 1980.
Sterling Wortman died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 58. The Rockefeller Archive Center holds a collection of his papers, including articles, correspondence, reports, and speeches.