Mannon Gallegly turned 101 in April, right before the tomato season starts in West Virginia. Instead of crossing different tomato plants to make a new creation this year, he hopes to spend his summer collecting tomato seeds from the plants he and a grad student are growing in the Davis College greenhouse and will plant in mid-to-late May.

Gallegly, a West Virginia University plant pathology professor emeritus, has spent most of his life and his entire 30-year retirement doing research to develop heartier tomatoes. He recently created his fourth and final tomato — the West Virginia ’23, dubbed “Mannon’s Majesty.” Upon its release, the WVU Greenhouse was inundated with thousands of requests for the seeds. To ensure they all get fulfilled, Gallegly will use this summer to plant West Virginia ’23 in abundance for the sole purpose of collecting the seeds to both give and sell. Proceeds from seeds bought in the Davis College Store will go toward a scholarship that will benefit students in the Plant and Soil Sciences Program.

Two people work in a garden one using a long tool

West Virginia ’23 is resistant to Septoria lycopersici or Septoria leaf spot, one of the major diseases that home gardeners deal with, Gallegly explained. It’s also resistant to fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, and late blight.

Septoria leaf spot affects the foliage of the tomato plant, removing the leaves and exposing the fruit to direct sunlight, which can lead to sunscald. This can either kill the plant or negatively affect the taste. Fusarium wilt is a fungal disease that can cause significant yield losses. Verticillium wilt is also a fungal disease that causes gradual deterioration, and late blight infects the entire plant, spreads quickly, and can cause total crop failure.

Gallegly inoculated his research plants with these diseases before putting them in a moisture chamber for three days. The survivors are those that are resistant. From those, he picked out tomatoes based on preferable size, color, shape, and taste. He bred them in the field to eventually have a tomato that is delicious, resistant to disease, and with a good size, shape, and color.

I am, after all, an employee of the people of West Virginia. That’s why I developed it — for the people of West Virginia.

— Mannon Gallegly

As he did with his previous varieties, Gallegly sent the new seeds to the World Vegetable Center, an international, nonprofit institute for vegetable research and development that focuses on climate change.

Unlike his previous varieties, Gallegly asked Davis College Dean Darrell Donahue, also the director of the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station, to name the West Virginia ’23.

“He named his previous tomatoes in honor of West Virginia, so it’s only right that we, and the state, honor him for all that he’s given us,” Donahue said. “Mannon shies away from the spotlight, but I thought it was best to name the West Virginia ’23 after him — ‘Mannon’s Majesty.’”

Eighty-two years ago, Gallegly finished his own studies and began his tomato-creating journey soon after. His research at WVU on vegetable diseases and tomato blight led him on a 13-year quest to develop his first tomato, the West Virginia ’63, known as the “people’s tomato.” The variety was released in 1963 and rereleased in 2013 to commemorate West Virginia’s 100th and 150th birthdays. In 2017, he created two more new varieties — the West Virginia ’17A and the West Virginia ’17B — in honor of the 150th birthday of the WVU Davis College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the University’s founding academic unit.

Plants with markers noting their identification

“With so many tomato growers in this state, I wanted to help them continue to grow their food,” Mannon Gallegly said. “I am, after all, an employee of the people of West Virginia. That’s why I developed it — for the people of West Virginia.”

Despite prolific and effective research, multiple tomatoes and one named for him, Gallegly didn’t work as hard or as long as he did for his own merit.

“A legacy? I don’t need a legacy,” Gallegly said. “I’m just a plant pathologist working on diseases.”