Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan was born on Aug. 7, 1925, in Kumbakonam, a small city in the Cauvery River basin that is the primary grain producing region in Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal. He was the second of four children. His father, M.K. Sambasivan, was an esteemed surgeon credited with leading successful campaigns to eradicate malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. His mother, Parvathy Thangam, was a homemaker who encouraged her children to study and achieve their dreams.
Dr. Swaminathan was fond of telling stories of his childhood, when he said he learned about tragedy and resilience. His father, who died when he was 11, told him once that “the ‘impossible’ exists mainly in our minds. But given the requisite will and effort, great tasks can be accomplished.”
He also learned about inspiration and public service. He was a devoted supporter of Gandhi, who visited his family’s home. In the fall of 1946, three years after millions of Indians died in a famine in Bengal, Dr. Swaminathan was so moved by Gandhi’s appeal to “the god of bread” to bless every home and hut that he switched his university studies from medicine to agricultural research.
After graduating from a leading agricultural college in Tamil Nadu, he joined the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, then took up postgraduate studies in plant genetics in the Netherlands and in England, where he earned a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Cambridge in 1952.
He met Shrimati Mina while at Cambridge and they married in 1955. She and Ms. Rao, a professor in gender and development at the University of East Anglia in England, survive him, as do two other daughters: Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chairwoman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, and Madhura Swaminathan, a professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore. He is also survived by five grandchildren.