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Chapter Two



The movement to establish the State agricultural experiment stations in the United States drew its first inspiration from European experience in founding successful institutions for scientific research in agriculture.

In the mid-19th century young American students of a new science, agricultural chemistry, traveled to the countries of Western Europe, notably Scotland and Germany. There they spent many months of apprenticeship in the laboratories of scientists who were building careers and reputations in a new profession; namely, the application of science to agriculture.

The Scots in the 1840's and the Saxons in the 1850's pioneered in providing an administrative structure for putting the scientist to work to improve agriculture. They could not avoid dealing with the intrinsic problems of policy and procedure in the organization and work of their new ventures. What should be, for example, the functions and duties of an agricultural laboratory? Where should lie the responsibility for administrative direction and for financial support? Under what authority—and for what constituencyshould the laboratory operate? These questions were identical with those that subsequently confronted administrators in the United States in the land-grant college and experiment station movement there. In their studies abroad, Americans learned lessons on-the-spot from the European attempts to introduce improved techniques in research.


Scotland in 1840 was a country of earnest and serious-minded farm improvers, well adjusted to a changing farm technology, and long accustomed to a system of deliberate innovation supervised by the Highland and Agricultural Society. For a half-century this Society-which traced its origins to 1784, its Royal charter to 1787, and its Parliamentary subsidy to 1789—had sought diligently to discover a methodology that would increase production in its thin-soiled homeland.

In 1789 the Society introduced a plan for accumulating agricultural information. It published a premium list offering medals, monetary awards, and honorary prizes for reports of farming accomplishments and for essays on prescribed topics. Numerous contestants responded.


Annually thereafter the Committee of Directors examined Scotland's farm economy, selected for investigation its weakest features, and compiled a premium list accordingly. Volunteers in the farm population regularly supplied data and explanations, the yearly harvest of prize essays multiplied in the Society's published Transactions, and the Directors constructed a countrywide improvement program on the cornerstone of the premium lists.

Emphasizing the theme of farm experiments in the 1830's, the Society strove to spread throughout Scotland a spirit of agricultural improvement. Via its premium lists it stimulated and partially rewarded farm experimenters; it hoped to make home trials a national habit. It proposed to produce a race of self-reliant investigators continually exerting themselves to become better farmers (5).1 Farmers who regularly conducted the trials would, the Directors believed, in time become responsive to new ideas, alert to find them, and ready to apply them; farmers who experimented would, in short, catch the vital spirit of improvement. Thus the success of the Society's campaign for improvement hinged on the popularity of home experiments. In December of 1840 the Directors congratulated themselves on their efforts to make the Scottish farmer experimentconscious.

Convinced that farmer experiments were concurrently bettering agricultural practices, the Directors decided to tap another source of information. They added to the premium list a section on the "Science of Agriculture," requesting essays that would explain on "scientific principles” enumerated problems of soil fertility and vegetable growth (4). They anticipated that chemists and vegetable physiologists, working at their own expense and in their own laboratories, would investigate subjects on the premium list and submit results useful to farmers. In 1841 the scientific section was moved to the head of the premium list, subjects requiring chemical analyses as the basis of proof were included, and the prize money was increased (5, pp. 506-507).

Had the Society hit upon the most effective arrangement for the efficient use of a scientist's services? A Scottish professor of chemistry, James F. W. Johnston, raised his voice in dissent. Well known in Edinburgh, Johnston had emerged in 10 years of study to a position of scientific prominence. In 1833 the newly founded Durham University appointed him to a faculty post in chemistry and mineralogy (3). By 1840 new discoveries in organic chemistry, publicized by Justus von Liebig's report to the Association turned the attention of the Association to the prospect of applying science to agriculture (16).

Professor Johnston sharply criticized the Society's program on two counts. First, he charged, the home trials were not producing accurate and reliable results because farmers had not learned how to experiment correctly. Second, the premium system did not sufficiently encourage chemists to perform agricultural research in a serious and steady manner. For each deficiency Johnston proposed a remedy. Farmers, he urged, should receive written instructions which explained the objectives and procedural details of worthwhile experiments. Furthermore, he contended, chemists should undertake "analytical researches of various kinds . , . in the laboratory, at the

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* Italic numbers in parentheses refer to Literature Cited, p. 17.

cost, under the direction, and for the immediate benefit of the practical agriculturist, and for the direct advancement of his art” (13, p. 208).


Johnston in this way directly, proposed that the farmers learn experimental techniques from scientists and, in addition, subsidize laboratory research; indirectly he recommended that the Society establish and maintain an institution for laboratory research. The Directors did not disapprove the former idea, but they stubbornly opposed the latter. Clinging to the precedent that the Society should stimulate others to experiment but should not itself be the experimenter, they considered a centralized research agency a menace to the continued operation of farm experiments. Farmers would rely on the centralized research, feeling that trials at home were no longer necessary, and thus the incentive for improvement would be destroyed. The Society pleaded that its treasury could not pay the expenses of a research establishment (5, pp. 497–498).

Particularly anxious to teach the farmers the proper methods of experimentation, Johnston in 1841 circulated a small tract, Suggestions for Experiments in Practical Agriculture. For several years thereafter he issued periodic revisions of this pamphlet and appended current numbers to a text he had written, Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry and Geology (12), and to a simplified version of that text, Elements of Scientific Agriculture and Geology, published especially for farmers.

Johnston also began an intensive study of fertilizers at his Durham Laboratory. This was at a time when there was widespread suspicion among farmers of the newly introduced "special manures” or commercial fertilizers. In volunteering to provide farmers with methodologies, Johnston realized that the scientists could rely on the farmers findings only when the farmer complied with the scientist's standard for accuracy. He formulated his Suggestions accordingly. He reiterated in these releases his faith that farm trials were essential for improvements as he set forth his recipes for fertilizers and his instructions for testing them. He pointed out the laboratory worker's inability to perform field trials. He similarly stressed the field experimenter's contribution to the improvement of agriculture (12). Thereby he skillfully persuaded both farmers and the Directors to cooperate in what amounted to a new step forward in scientific agriculture. Farmers could not avoid the conclusion that a chemist was superintending a new kind of improvement. Johnston's successful efforts in demonstrating the immediate usefulness of fertilizer and soil analysis rapidly popularized among Scottish farmers the concept of a laboratory for the investigation of farm problems.

In the spring of 1842 the Directors, noting that farmers were accepting the idea of soil and fertilizer analysis, moved one step nearer to Johnston's goal, a Society-sponsored laboratory. They appointed a committee to consider the problem of hiring a chemist as a Society officer. On July 5, 1842, the committee reported in favor of the project but stressed its inability to find ways for raising the minimum salary that a first-class chemist would demand (6). The only possible method, it concluded, was some form of popular subscription. The Directors accepted the report but took no further action.

During the next 3 weeks, however, several tenant farmers in the Edinburgh area assumed the initiative. Searching for a way to obtain analyses of their own soils and fertilizers at the cheapest possible prices, they drew up and submitted to the Directors on July 25 a simple scheme whereby the Society would hire a chemist to give lectures and perform at cut rates the two types of analyses, and each farmer would pay for his own analyses (7). When this was turned down by the Directors, the disappointed but resourceful tenants determined to get a chemist's services at low cost to themselves. In the following week 67 of their tenant brethren and 30 proprietors joined in a subscription movement. For 5 months the subscription list grew; soon it contained the names of prominent Society members and influential landholders.


On December 12, 1842, the proprietors and tenants gathered in an Edinburgh hotel and by resolution created the Agricultural Chemistry Association of Scotland. They set a subscription goal of 500 pounds and named a committee on Association Society relations. Within a month this committee worked out a bargain with the Directors. The Society agreed to contribute 50 pounds per year and rooms in its new museum for the meetings of the Association; the latter agreed in return that the Society should appoint three of its own members to the nine-man Committee of Management and should have exclusive right to publish the Association's Proceedings in its Transactions (6). The Committee of Management organized itself in January 1843, prepared a prospectus of the chemist's duties and the subscribers' privileges (7), advertised for a chemist, and in July elected Professor Johnston.

The Association placed a heavy load on Johnston's shoulders (7), but in doing so it recognized the contribution his ideas had made to its formation. Interpreting improvement to mean a search for new knowledge and the search, in turn, to involve the technique of applying selected sciences to agriculture, the charter set up a research agency comprising a chemical laboratory and a system of farm experiments. It gave Johnston a key role in formulating and executing a research program: the chemist should suggest experiments for laboratory and field and should explain the results to scientist and farmer.

The charter did not define the nature of the new knowledge for which Johnston should search. Did performance of routine analyses for individual members satisfy the charter's insistence on "the enlargement of our present knowledge," or did research require additional effort? The Committee of Management supplied the answer. It decreed that the research program should aim "to establish general principles” and not confine itself to "analyses for immediate profit” (7).

News of the Johnston appointment traveled across the Atlantic to Benjamin Silliman, Sr., Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology at Yale College. Known abroad as the founder and editor of the American Journal of Arts and Sciences, Silliman dated his scientific training to graduate work at English and Scottish universities in 1805–06. Since that time he had kept in touch with British scientists and their work. Famous at home as Yale's lecturer on science, Silliman had become a suave speaker and a deft demonstrator of experiments in the classroom and on the public lecture platform. A faculty member since 1802, he had attained stature as an influential figure at Yale and as an American authority on science.

In 1840 there appeared in Silliman's lecture hall John Pitkin Norton, an 18-year-old lad who was determined to become a well instructed farmer and to assume the management of his wealthy father's Connecticut estate. Sharply curious about chemical analysis, young Norton acquired during his year under Silliman an appetite for advanced work in chemistry. He thereupon spent the following year, 1841–42, in study at Silliman's private laboratory on the Yale campus. Norton returned to New Haven in 1843, this time reporting to the private laboratory of Silliman's son and professional assistant, Benjamin, Jr. By the spring of 1844 Norton was bent on acquiring "a thorough knowledge of analytical chemistry as applied to agriculture” (19). Silliman, Sr., pleased with Norton's skill, urged that his protege go abroad to gain further proficiency; he arranged for Norton to become a pupil of Professor Johnston (15). Norton arrived at Johnston's quarters in May of 1844 and settled down to an 18 months' stay.


In June 1844, Johnston escorted Norton to Edinburgh and set him to work as one of three assistants in the laboratory of the Agricultural Chemistry Association. There Norton applied methods for analyzing the numerous samples of soils, manures, minerals, and water which the subscribers submitted; he also began, at his teacher's urging, an extended analysis of oat proteins, a project for which the Society had announced a substantial premium. He learned the details of Johnston's new technique for controlling the price and quality of fertilizers on the market. He participated in the detection of serious adulteration in samples of some new commercial fertilizers. From the many procedures he saw his mentor establish, the young scientist acquired both scientific and practical experience (13, 17).

The American apprentice also saw another side of the Association's work. In July of 1844, soon after his introduction to the routines of the Edinburgh laboratory, he accompanied Johnston, the ambassador of improvement, on the latter's first annual tour of Scottish farming districts. For several weeks the pair visited marketplaces, towns, and fairs. At each stopping point Norton listened to his teacher's lectures before groups of farmers who had assembled for the occasion; at each gathering he paid close attention to the chemist's explanations of the ways science could solve local problems.

The enthusiastic response of "dirt" farmers to Johnston's lecturing convinced Norton that the Chemistry Association was exerting an "immense increasing influence ... on the prosperity of Scotland” (17). His admiration for the Association—and for Johnston's skill as a teacher and an advice-giving savant-grew as the months slipped past. The Association in his view provided a praiseworthy organization whereby the scientist and the farmer could blend "scientific researches" with “practical experience" so as to achieve the ultimate goal, “a system of scientific agriculture” (18).


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