WSU’s first wheat breeder honored at dedication

“Professor William Jasper Spillman inspired students, colleagues farmers and administrators,” said Steve Jones, WSU winter wheat breeder.  “It is our hope that he continues to inspire for generations to come.” 

Jones spoke before a crowd of more than 100 people at the rededication of the Spillman memorial stone on Saturday, Oct. 21. 

William Jasper Spillman was a member of the Washington Agricultural College faculty from 1894 to 1902.

“Professor Spillman’s first varieties were released in 1905,” said Jones. “They were grown for more than 50 years and the genes from those varieties can be found in the pedigrees of today’s wheats.”

Spillman was the only American to independently rediscover Mendel’s Law of Heredity, which describes how traits are passed on genetically, and he is credited for gaining acceptance of Mendel’s Law among fellow scientists and farmers.

His work as a wheat breeder brought him to the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which hired him in 1902. During his first of two stints with the department, he headed the USDA’s new Office Farm Management, which took advantage of his interest in farm economics which dated back to his years at WAC. In between, he was an editor of the influential Farm Journal.

Spillman died in 1931 following an unsuccessful operation. His wife Mattie died in 1935. Their ashes were spread on research plots on the college campus where Spillman had conducted his wheat breeding work more than 30 years earlier. An inscribed granite memorial marker was dedicated at that location in 1940.

The stone was removed in the late 1950s to make room for construction of Johnson Hall.  In 1960 it was moved to the Spillman Agronomy Farm outside Pullman where it remained until 2006 when it was moved back to campus, within 100 feet of its original location.

“We thought it was time to bring the stone back to campus so that we can be reminded each day of the fabulous contributions that Professor Spillman
made to this university and the early contributions he made to Washington agriculture,” Jones said.