Seed World

Cornell Plant Breeder Richard W. Robinson Passes Away at 93

Renowned for his pioneering work in crop genetics, Robinson’s legacy continues to influence global agriculture from his tenure at Cornell AgriTech.

Richard “Dick” W. Robinson, a Cornell AgriTech professor emeritus whose innovative approaches to cucurbit and tomato breeding have left an indelible mark on agricultural practices worldwide, passed away on March 22 in Geneva, New York, at the age of 93.

Robinson’s career was distinguished by his prolific output of scholarly books and articles on plant breeding. Throughout his career, his reputation as a leading expert drew scientists and graduate students from across the globe—including Poland, France, India, and China—to collaborate and learn from him at Cornell AgriTech.

Richard Robinson. Photo provided by Cornell AgriTech.

“Dick was really a fearless breeder,” remarked Thomas Björkman in a Cornell news release. Björkman is a fellow professor emeritus at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science.

He praised Robinson for his innovative use of wild crop relatives to enhance disease resistance in domestic plants, a challenging feat that involves overcoming significant reproductive barriers.

“Turning plants into something that resembles the intended crop requires both science and art, but he did it routinely,” Björkman added.

Born in Los Angeles in 1930, Robinson’s academic journey in plant sciences began at the University of California, Davis, where he earned his B.S. in 1952 and his M.S. in 1953.

His career at Cornell started in 1961 at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, now known as Cornell AgriTech, where he also completed his Ph.D. the following year.

Robinson’s expertise led to the development of several widely acclaimed plant varieties, including tomato varieties “The New Yorker” and “Nova,” as well as the squash variety “Whitaker” and lettuce varieties “Saladcrisp” and “Onondaga.”

His colleague of 25 years, Joe Shail, noted, “Dick was classically trained, and he had a real talent. He was always able to keep the theoretical and the practical in mind when doing his work.”

Known for his endless curiosity and keen observational skills, Robinson was a master at breeding crops that were more resilient and productive. His work not only pushed the boundaries of plant breeding but also contributed significantly to global food security.

Robinson was also a staunch advocate for beautifying the Geneva campus. In a 1989 letter, he envisioned a transformation of the campus into a vibrant horticultural landscape, with plans for a lilac garden to rival Rochester’s famed Highland Park and other enhancements to inspire both pride and pleasure among visitors and staff alike.

Robinson’s passion for horticulture extended to his personal life as well, where he maintained an avid interest in gardening at home, nurturing plants in his greenhouse for transplanting.

Richard Robinson is survived by his wife of 61 years, Inge, their two daughters, and four grandchildren, leaving behind a legacy that will continue to influence the field of plant science for generations to come.