In scientific jargon, tomato blight is caused by the fungus-like pathogen Phytophthora infestans. It’s the same disease responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century.
Signs of blight include brown spots or lesions on the stems, olive green or brown patches on the leaves, and white fungal growth underneath. It’s the ultimate killer.
“This was the disease farmers and gardeners feared most,” said Gallegly, who grew up on an Arkansas farm yet had never witnessed blight firsthand.
Gallegly collected potato and tomato varieties and planted them in the summer
of 1950 on a farm outside the Huttonsville Correctional Facility. The warden let
the University grow crops there, and inmates tended to the farm. Eventually, late blight swarmed in and wiped out all of the tomatoes, except for a few. The wild tomato varieties survived, and Gallegly was on to something. He got to work.
By crossing and screening for resistance in greenhouses and labs with wild tomato varieties, he conjured up an indestructible tomato, resistant to blight.
It took 13 years. Unveiled to the public in 1963 to commemorate West Virginia’s 100th birthday, the tomato was named “West Virginia ’63.”
Seeds of the Land-Grant
Gallegly never predicted the impact his tomato would have on West Virginia and the world. Maybe that’s why he’s still growing, collecting, and breeding tomatoes in the name of science and service, long after his “retirement.” Today the West Virginia ’63 can be found in locations as diverse as the northeast United States, Texas, and even Kenya and Uganda.
The tomato will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design plans to commemorate the West Virginia ’63 throughout the year, said David Welsh, public relations specialist. WVU will package West Virginia ’63 seeds and make them available for distribution at Extension and Davis College events. Special events, such as a tomato dinner, are also in the works.
Gallegly still can’t wrap his head around the hoopla over his innovation. Honestly, he doesn’t think about it too much. He’s just here to pick tomatoes. “I never realized its popularity until the Charleston Gazette did an article (in 2006),” Gallegly said. “They mentioned a West Virginia ’63 fan club in the story. I didn’t know there was a fan club. And I’ve never met any fan club members.”
The West Virginia ’63 is sometimes referred to as the “Centennial,” because it was officially introduced on West Virginia’s 100th birthday.
Just as important as its blight resistance is the taste. “’Ummmmm mmmmmm.’ That’s about as good as I can describe the taste,” Gallegly said. “It’s a little sweet, sweeter than the normal tomato.”
A graduate student researching the physiological characteristics of the West Virginia ’63 discovered it was high in acid, though it wasn’t tart because of its sugar
content. It also boasts a high internal color, which stems from some Campbell’s Soup varieties that Gallegly used.
“Overall, it’s a good canning tomato and a good slicing tomato for the table,” he said. “A lot of people just eat slices of the tomato between two pieces of bread. That’s the way I eat ’em.”
You could say that the West Virginia ’63 is living proof that the land-grant mission
remains alive and well at WVU. Before the introduction of the land-grant institution,
higher education was viewed as an elite enterprise exclusive only to wealthy white males. The 1862 Morrill Act knocked down those barriers, and paved the way for WVU’s founding four years later. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Act, granting each state 30,000 acres of land for each member it had in Congress, with the land and gross proceeds used to fund educational institutions focused on agriculture, science, and engineering.
Overnight, a college education became more affordable and accessible to a broader scope of folks, including the working class, and agriculture and engineering research flourished.
Gallegly’s tomato promoted agriculture and served the masses at the same time. “The primary mission of a plant pathologist is to help farmers control diseases and prevent losses in their crops,” Gallegly explained. “We can approach it by using spray materials and spray, spray, spray. But the public prefers nonchemical approaches. So, in order to develop a control for a plant disease, we wanted to do away with chemicals.” Gallegly’s creation eliminates the spraying part. Plus, farmers are likely to get a better yield, he said.
“A lot of people forget that it also helps the consumer because the farmer spends less on producing the food,” Gallegly continued. “The whole public, the whole state, the whole nation benefits from a development like this. That’s a contribution from a land-grant.”
DESTINY FROM THE DEPRESSION
Growing up on a cotton farm in southwest Arkansas, Gallegly wasn’t even ten when the Great Depression hit. Yet he remembers the clawing and scratching it took him, his brother, and Mom and Dad to climb out of it.
They had everything on their farm. In addition to cotton, their main cash crop, they raised vegetables, chickens, cows, and pigs (he doesn’t remember tomatoes). Still, like many American families of the 1930s, that was barely enough to survive.
“Those Depression years were when you didn’t have any money at all,” Gallegly recalls vividly. “All we had was a little cash from the sale of the cotton. If we had six bales of cotton, 500 pounds each, cotton at ten cents a pound, that was our cash for the whole year for my mother, my father, and my brother and I.”
Preserving resources and making the most out of what you had was key to enduring the economic hardship. Perhaps that played a role in Gallegly’s development of one of West Virginia’s most well-known farming innovations of the twentieth century.
Gallegly earned his bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Arkansas, and
his master’s and PhD in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin. His graduate
studies were interrupted by a stint in the US Army.
With his education and military career behind him, Gallegly received a job offer from WVU in June 1949—the same month he received his PhD and the same month he and his wife, Mary, had a new baby.
That month was a turning point for Gallegly. It would also mark the beginning of an illustrious life and career in Morgantown and WVU. The young scientist had a chance to work at UCLA, Idaho, and a handful of other universities across the country. He chose WVU.
“My professor at Wisconsin told me, ‘If you go to WVU, you’ll still be learning. If you go anywhere else, you’ll be teaching them,’” Gallegly recalled. “That was the reason I came here. I thought it’d be a nice jumping-off place and I’d go to a bigger school. But you fall in love with the mountains and the state and the people.”
Gallegly and his wife raised three children here, and the couple still lives in the same house they bought in 1949.
Coincidentally, they’re not all that crazy for tomatoes. “My kids don’t eat tomatoes,” Gallegly said. “They won’t eat them. Maybe I fed them too many.”