Building on the shoulders of giants

March 2015
By Scott A. Yates

Wheat farming may have started 10,000 years ago, but it’s only been within the last 115 that scientists have begun to understand enough about the plant’s genetic machinery to improve upon it through breeding.

One of the first to perceive this remarkable ability was William Jasper Spillman, the 11th of 15 children born to Missouri farmers Emily and Nathan Spilman (William changed the spelling in college). Arguably the world’s first wheat breeder, Spillman was definitely the first to breed wheats at Washington State University (WSU). His 1901 paper, “Quantitative Studies on the Transmission of Parental Characters to Hybrid Offspring,” played a major role in the acceptance of Gregor Mendel’s lost Laws of Inheritance. It also laid the groundwork for his departure from Pullman to Washington, D.C., where he served in influential positions within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and became known as the founder of agricultural economics.

But, it was during Spillman’s brief, seven-year sojourn (1894-1901) at what was then called the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science, that he established the foundation for the improvement of wheat varieties within the state, the nation and throughout the world. Not to mention, he served as coach of the school’s first football team, the Farmers.

Spillman’s legacy is being honored this spring with WSU’s release of a new winter wheat variety targeted for the 12-to-18-inch precipitation zone as a replacement for Xerpha and several private varieties. Named “Jasper,” the variety (formerly known as WA8169) is not just noteworthy for its namesake, but as the 100th cultivar released from the Pullman campus since Spillman’s hard white club, Hybrid 60, was introduced in 1905.

Read more in Wheatlife.

Washington State University