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William Boyce Thompson (1869–1930) was a rare combination of hardheaded realist and dreamer. He was schooled in the rough mining towns of Montana and at Phillips Exeter Academy mining stocks on Wall Street and owning and operating mines. He was not only a shrewd man of business but also had great intellectual curiosity, particularly about science. He wished to be a force for good in the world and supported various philanthropies. The study of plants, he hoped, would result in practical, substantial contributions to human welfare.
Thompson’s life is chronicled in his 1935 biography The Magnate. He visited Russia in 1917, just after the overthrow of the monarchy, when civil war was raging and starvation was rampant. Thompson was a member of an American Red Cross relief mission that was present during the political unrest after the abdication of the czar, the interim government of Kerensky, and rise of Lenin and Trotsky. He was awarded the honorary title of colonel by the American Red Cross.
The mission saw firsthand the suffering of the people and the inability of the social democratic government headed by Alexander Kerensky to feed the hungry. Although Thompson added more than $1 million of his own to the relief funds provided by the U.S. government, he was unable to convince President Woodrow Wilson to do more. Soon after the Americans had returned home, the Kerensky government fell and the Bolsheviks came to power. Thompson’s hopes for a prosperous democracy in Russia were ended.
The Russian experience convinced him that agriculture, food supply, and social justice are linked. World political stability in the future, he prophesied, would depend on the availability of adequate food. This conviction, along with his faith in science, helped to shape his next philanthropic project. In 1920 he decided to establish an institute for plant research. Its purpose would be to study “why and how plants grow, why they languish or thrive, how their diseases may be conquered, how their development may be stimulated by the regulation of the elements which contribute to their life.”
By 1924 an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers had been assembled, and the facilities were finished. Many luminaries attended the dedication ceremonies on September 24 for the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (named not for Thompson himself, but for his parents Anne Boyce Thompson and William Thompson).
William Crocker, an associate professor of plant physiology at the University of Chicago, became the institute’s first managing director. He, Thompson, and other academic advisers spent several years planning the institute. Herbert H. Whetzel of Cornell urged Thompson to build the institute at a university so it could cooperate with university research programs, but Thompson wanted to be personally involved, and the institute was built across the street from his mansion in Yonkers, New York.
BTI is an independent, nonprofit institution affiliated with Cornell University. While BTI maintains an identity with its own mission, values, and endowment, its location on the campus facilitates a collaborative association with Cornell.
The desire that the Institute be associated with a university traces back to its founding, when William Boyce Thompson had his vision of creating an institution that he hoped would be to plant science what the Rockefeller Institute was to human and animal science. As a start, he asked advice from a number of prominent scientists.
Among them was H. H. Whetzel, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell University, who suggested that this new institute be located in association with a university, preferably Cornell, but Thompson, although aware of the advantages of a university affiliation, had already decided it would be built across the street from his mansion, “Alder,” where he could observe its construction and operation. Little did he know that Whetzel’s proposal would someday become a reality.