If you’ve ever crunched on a salty Frito Lay potato chip or cut into a tender and fleshy RuneStone Gold, you’ve tasted a piece of Christian Thill’s legacy. In his decades-long career as a plant breeder and geneticist, Thill became well known for the high yield and desirable traits of his potato varieties, as well as for his heartwarming and energetic personality. On August 7, 2014 Christian passed away unexpectedly from a heart-related issue at age 53. Professor Thill was hired into the Department of Horticultural Science in 1997, where he built upon the work of Professsor Emeritus Florian Lauer to create the U of M potato breeding program known today. Thill was highly respected for his knowledge in the industry and served as editor of prestigious journals such as Crop Science and the American Journal of Potato Research.
Professor Thill taught courses in sustainable vegetable breeding and plant genetics. In the classroom and in the field, his thoughtful, caring nature and boundless energy portrayed a sense of genuineness and commitment to his students. In 2013, Thill was awarded the CFANS Student Board Award for Outstanding Professor.
“Christian was truly interested in our ideas,” notes Jenny Heck, a former student. “He encouraged us to follow through with our creative ventures and passions—whether it was a research paper or a million-dollar business proposal. He was also very dedicated to our education. I remember more than one evening where he stayed on campus with a group of students until 10 p.m. the evening before an exam to help us study.”
Thill’s passion and innovation did not go unnoticed among his colleagues in the potato industry. Susie Thompson, head potato breeder at North Dakota State University, recalls, “Christian was exuberant… he loved potatoes and the potato industry. He didn’t always follow the conventional potato breeding program path, but instead thought out of the box, often borrowing techniques to try from other crops.”
Professor Thill will also be remembered for his bright smile and his generosity. Every harvest season, he hauled in mounds of potatoes straight from field the to friends, neighbors, the department, and local food shelves, excited to share the season’s bounty.
The MonDak Gold, a red-skinned potato with yellow flesh, was Thill’s latest variety. Bred to have a long storage life and few internal defects, the variety has shown great promise in its first year of commercial production in 2014. Christian Thill’s memory as a scientist and as a mentor will live on for years to come through the potato breeds he has left behind.