In his nearly thirty years with the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), Ralph W. Richardson, Jr. worked as a plant geneticist with the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP), a program officer in the Agricultural Sciences division, and finally, the head of the Foundation’s Quality of the Environment (QE) program. Richardson’s intellectual curiosity and penchant for the innovative and unconventional earned him a reputation as a kind of “Renaissance man” within the Foundation.
Richardson was born on February 2, 1918 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and spent his boyhood on the banks of the Mississippi River at his family's home in Newport, Minnesota. His love of the outdoors and years spent working for plant nurseries and florist businesses as a teenager and college student inspired him to pursue a horticultural career. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, earning his B.S. in 1948 and his Ph.D. in horticulture and plant genetics in 1952. His dissertation, "Genetic Effects of Reduced Fertilization in Tomato Flowers," received the 1954 Leonard H. Vaughan Award for "the most outstanding dissertation in vegetable crop breeding published that year in the United States."
In 1951, the Rockefeller Foundation recruited Richardson to join its Mexican Agricultural Program as an Assistant Plant Geneticist. He worked his way up through the program to Assistant Director (1956-1959) and Director (1959-1962). Richardson's early work with the MAP focused on introducing high-yielding vegetables into Mexican agriculture and improving farmers' cultivation practices. He developed two new tomato varieties ideally suited to Mexican needs--a tomato plant resistant to the grey mold fungus, and a tomato with a firm fruit that could better withstand transportation to market. As Director of the MAP, he helped form Mexico's National Institute of Agricultural Research and served as its Co-Director General, and prepared to transfer the program's work to Mexican colleagues. Richardson also played a central role in the creation of Mexico's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT.
After eleven years with the Mexican Agricultural Program, Richardson returned to the United States in 1962 to join the Agricultural Sciences Division in the Foundation's New York office. He was promoted from Assistant Director to Associate Director and finally, Deputy Director of the Agricultural Sciences Division in 1970.
In 1971, Richardson was promoted to Director of Natural and Environmental Sciences, and placed at the helm of the Foundation's newly created Quality of the Environment program. Under his direction, the QE program made grants in environmental studies education, climate research, regional environmental management, and pesticide research, among others.
When the Foundation’s assets plummeted in the economic crisis of the mid-1970s, the QE program was ended. Richardson retired and moved with his wife Amy to State College, Pennsylvania, where he served as an adjunct professor of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Penn State. He also took up work as a consultant to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Science Foundation, and the National Research Council.
Richardson died on November 21, 2010, in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Rockefeller Foundation Agricultural Program Oral History Interview with Richardson, as well as his officer's diaries can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center.