By 1941 Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov had created the largest seed bank in the world, a collection of 400,000 seeds, roots, and fruits whose genetic material held the future of Soviet agriculture. Unfortunately it was located in Leningrad, which Hitler encircled that summer and began to starve.
The siege of Leningrad lasted two years and cost more than a million
lives, and Vavilov's scientists endured it surrounded by edible plants.
"As they slowly starved, they refused to eat from any of their
collection containers of rice, peas, corn and wheat," two survivors
remembered in 1993. "They chose torment and death in order to preserve
Vavilov's gene bank."
The collection filled 16 rooms, in which no one was allowed to remain
alone. Workers stored potatoes in the basement and guarded them in
shifts, "numb with cold and emaciated from hunger." Botanist Dmitri
Ivanov died preserving thousands of packets of rice; peanut specialist
Alexander Stchukin died at his writing table. In all, nine scientists
and workers chose to die of starvation rather than eat the plants.
Vavilov himself died in a labor camp in 1943, but today his bank is the
world's largest collection of fruits and berries.