Richard Robinson, renowned vegetable breeder, dies at 93

Richard “Dick” W. Robinson, a professor at Cornell AgriTech whose groundbreaking work in cucurbit and tomato breeding is used worldwide, died March 22 in Geneva, New York. He was 93.

Richard Robinson

Robinson was the author of several books and scientific articles on plant breeding, and over his long career scientists and graduate students from several countries – including Poland, France, India and China – travelled to Cornell AgriTech to do research with him.  

“Dick was really a fearless breeder,” said Thomas Björkman, professor emeritus, School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell AgriTech. “He used wild crop relatives as sources of resistance to a number of diseases. Making the initial crosses is extremely difficult, and few people manage to find ways around the reproductive barriers. 

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

Robinson was born in 1930 in Los Angeles. He graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a B.S. degree in plant science in 1952 and a M.S. in vegetable crops in 1953. In 1961 he came to Cornell as a research specialist at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (now Cornell AgriTech) in Geneva. He completed his Ph.D. at Cornell the following year.  

Robinson became assistant professor in 1962 and full professor in 1977. He excelled at breeding tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, lettuce and eggplant. His most notable releases include tomato varieties “The New Yorker” and “Nova,” squash variety “Whitaker” and lettuce varieties “Saladcrisp” and “Onondaga.” 

“Dick was classically trained, and he had a real talent,” said Joe Shail, who worked with him as a research support specialist for 25 years. “He was always able to keep the theoretical and the practical in mind when doing his work.”  

Shail said Robinson had two traits that were essential for his work: endless curiosity and a keen sense of observation. Breeding crops with their “wild” or feral cousins ideally results in crops with more desirable traits, such as a resistance to a virus, or insect damage, or a better yield. 

“In breeding, sometimes the plant that looks the least favorable is the one you want,” Shail said. “We did our little piece to feed the world in the 21st century.”  

Robinson was also known for his perseverance. When other plant breeders determined something would not work, or was just impossible, Robinson would be undeterred. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to give it a shot anyway,’” Bjorkman said. 

Robinson helped found the Geneva Arboretum Association, with the goal of returning the Geneva campus into a lush horticultural landscape. 

“Picture this, please, if you will,” Robinson wrote in a 1989 letter to Robert Plane, who was then director of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. “A beautifully landscaped campus, bringing much pleasure and pride to our employees and making a very favorable impression on visitors. Consider having a lilac garden here to rival Rochester’s famed Highland Park, with no less than 96 different varieties of lilacs as well as 39 other species of ornamental plants. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an amphitheater west of Jordan Hall, decorated by one hundred and thirteen ornamental shrubs and trees!” 

At home Robinson remained an enthusiastic gardener and had a greenhouse where he grew annuals for transplanting.  

Robinson is survived by his wife of 61 years, Inge, two daughters and four grandchildren. 

Kathleen Curtis is a freelance writer for Cornell AgriTech. 

Media Contact

Kaitlyn Serrao