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Remembering ‘Barley Bob’: From field to lab, Robert Nilan left a lasting legacy

Posted by | December 4, 2015
Barley research pioneer Robert A. Nilan inspects a grainfield in 1956. Nilan’s work to understand barley genetics and breed new varieties revolutionized Northwest agriculture and enhanced research around the world. (Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections, WSU Libraries)
Barley research pioneer Robert A. Nilan inspects a grainfield in 1956. Nilan’s work to understand barley genetics and breed new varieties revolutionized Northwest agriculture and enhanced research around the world. (Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections, WSU Libraries)

Sixty-five years ago, Robert A. Nilan came to Washington State University to breed better barley. He ended up changing the world.

Nilan, who passed away at age 91 this past October, transformed barley breeding and genetics on a global scale. His 41-year impact at WSU lives on in the programs he founded, the people he trained, and in farmers’ fields across the Northwest.

“Bob’s legacy to the farmers of Washington is profound,” said Kevin Murphy, current barley breeder at WSU. “He is still talked about today in almost reverent tones by many older growers.”

Robert Nilan, accepting the WSU Foundation Outstanding Service Award in 2009 (WSU photo).
Robert Nilan, accepting the WSU Foundation Outstanding Service Award in 2009 (WSU photo).

Arriving at the then-Washington State College in 1951, Nilan jumpstarted a tiny barley breeding program and created a genetics program from scratch. In 1964, he released a new barley variety, Steptoe, that changed the game.

“Steptoe revolutionized the barley world on the Palouse,” Murphy said. The cultivar yielded so well in Washington’s arid croplands that it took many years for breeders to surpass it. Steptoe was one of five Nilan varieties that significantly increased yields, acreage and demand across the Northwest, helping farmers and the food supply.

As a globetrotting geneticist, he discovered new mutagens and launched a successful barley genome mapping project, helping WSU become a world-renowned center for research. Always approachable and kind, he trained more than 75 graduate and post-doctoral scholars.

“Dr. Nilan was a great mentor and friend to students and colleagues from around the globe,” said Dr. Kim Kidwell, CAHNRS Acting Dean. “He was among the most loving, dedicated and supportive individuals I have ever known. He left an incredible mark on many of us, and forever changed WSU for the better.”

Today, Nilan’s legacy continues through the Robert A. Nilan Endowed Chair for barley research. A celebration of his life is planned for January 23, 2016, at Ensminger Pavilion.