Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Lawes, John Bennet

1402475Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 3 — Lawes, John Bennet1901Ernest Clarke (1856-1923)

LAWES, Sir JOHN BENNET, first baronet (1814–1900), agriculturist, was the only son of John Bennet Lawes (d. 1822), lord of the manor of Rothamsted, near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, and his wife Marianne, daughter of John Sherman of Drayton, co. Oxford. He was born at Rothamsted on 28 Dec. 1814. He was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he matriculated on 14 March 1833; but, as he said in an autobiographical note contributed to the 'Agricultural Gazette' for 3 Jan. 1888 (p. 13), 'in his days Eton and Oxford were not of much assistance to those whose tastes were scientific rather than classical, and consequently his early pursuits were of a most desultory character.' He left Oxford without a degree. From his earliest years, however, he 'had a taste for chemistry,' and he described how at the age of twenty he had 'one of the best bedrooms in the house fitted up with stoves, retorts, and all the apparatus necessary for chemical research.' At this period his attention was chiefly directed to 'the composition of drugs, and he almost knew the Pharmacopœia by heart;' he also spent some time in the laboratory of Anthony Todd Thomson [q. v.] at University College, London.

Lawes entered into possession of the family estate in 1834 on coming of age, and made experiments with growing plants (such as poppy, hemlock, colchicum, belladonna) which contained the active principles of drugs. He says, however, that 'for three or four years he does not remember any connection between agriculture and chemistry crossing his mind; but the remark of a gentleman, Lord Dacre, who farmed near him, who pointed out that in one farm bones were invaluable for the turnip crop, and on another farm they were useless, attracted his attention a good deal.' The investigations which Lawes made to discover the reason for this may fairly be regarded as the germ of the Rothamsted experiments, which subsequently became world-famous.

Observing the beneficial results upon his own turnip crops at Rothamsted by dressing them with bones dissolved in sulphuric acid, Lawes took out in 1842 a patent, in which he showed how apatite and coprolite and other mineral or fossil phosphates might be converted into a potent manure by treatment with sulphuric acid. He thus laid the foundation for what speedily became and still remains a very important industry, and he was indeed the pioneer of the now very large agricultural manure trade. The first factory for the manufacture of mineral superphosphate was started by Lawes at Deptford in 1843 ; he built a second and much larger factory at Barking Creek in 1857 (see historical description by J. C. Morton in Agric. Gazette, 2 Jan. 1888, p. 8). He sold the manure business to a company in 1872 ; but he had at that time embarked in other branches of chemical manufacture (citric and tartaric acid), and remained actively engaged in business in London up to the time of his death.

But 'all the time he was accumulating a fortune by business in London, he was at home spending a fortune in laborious scientific agricultural investigations' (R. Warington, F.R.S., in Agric. Gazette, 17 Sept. 1900, p. 180). In 1843 he started on a regular basis the Rothamsted agricultural experiment station ; and in June of that year called to his aid, as coadjutor and technical adviser, Dr. (afterwards Sir) Joseph Henry Gilbert. Together Lawes and Dr. Gilbert instituted and carried out a vast number of experiments of enormous benefit to the agricultural community at large, the details of which were recorded in the 'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,' the Journals of the Chemical Society and of the Royal Agricultural Society, and other publications. Two main lines of inquiry were followed — the one relating to plants, the other to animals. In the former case the method of procedure is described in the official 'Memoranda' in which it was shown how endeavours had been made 'to grow some of the most important crops of rotation, each separately, year after year, for many years in succession on the same land, without manure, with farmyard manure, and with a great variety of chemical manures, the same description of manure being as a rule applied year after year on the same plot. Experiments on an actual course of rotation without manure and with different manures were also made : 'wheat, barley, oats, beans, clover and other leguminous plants, turnips, sugar beet, mangels, potatoes, and grass crops having been thus experimented on. The main object of the experiments on animals (commenced in 1847) was to ascertain how they could be most economically fed for human consumption ; but incidentally information of great value was obtained towards the solution of such problems as the sources in the food consumed of the fat produced in the animal body, the characteristic demands of the animal body (for nitrogenous or non-nitrogenous constituents of food), in the exercise of muscular power, and the comparative characters of animal and vegetable food in human dietaries.

In all 132 separate papers or reports on the Rothamsted experiments were published during Lawes's life, most of them in the joint names of himself and Dr. Gilbert. A full list of these is contained in the 'Memoranda of the Origin, Plan, and Results of the Field and other Experiments ... at Rothamsted,' now issued annually by the Lawes Agricultural Trust Committee. The 'Journal of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland' for 1895 contains a summary (354 pages), by Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert themselves, of several series of the experiments, with photographic portraits of both authors, and a view of the manor house.

This did not, however, exhaust Lawes's literary activity, for he was occasionally prevailed on to lecture in public to farmers' clubs, and a lengthy letter by him, estimating the produce of the wheat crop in the United Kingdom, was an annual feature of the 'Times' newspaper in every autumn from 1863 to 1899. He would often moreover write short pithy practical papers for the agricultural press on various phases of the Rothamsted experiments, or expressing in terse and forcible language his own views on some agricultural question of the day.

The unique feature of Rothamsted — which is now the oldest experiment station in the world — is the long unbroken continuity of the investigations. To provide for their permanent continuance, Lawes constituted by deed, dated 14 Feb. 1889, three trustees, to whom he leased the laboratory and certain lands at Rothamsted for ninety-nine years at a peppercorn rent, and conveyed to such trustees the sum of 100,000l. as an endowment fund. Under that deed a 'Lawes Agricultural Trust' was created, which is to be administered by a committee of nine persons, four nominated by the Royal Society, two by the Royal Agricultural Society, and one each by the Chemical and Linnean Societies, the ninth trustee being the owner of Rothamsted at the time (Journal Royal Agric. Soc. 1896, pp. 324–32).

The experiments which he was conducting at Rothamsted early brought Lawes into prominence. He joined the Royal Agricultural Society in 1846, and became one of its governing body on 22 May 1848, retaining his seat on the council for the unprecedented period of over fifty-two years. He became a vice-president in 1878, and a trustee in 1891, and was offered the presidency in 1893 (the year of the jubilee of the Rothamsted experiments), though he then felt unequal, through advancing years and increasing deafness, to accept the post. In 1854 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Societv, and received the society's royal medal (with Dr. Gilbert) in 1867. In 1894 he also received (again with Dr. Gilbert) the Albert gold medal of the Society of Arts. In 1877 he became LL.D. of Edinburgh, in 1892 D.C.L. of Oxford, and in 1894 Sc.D. of Cambridge, and on 19 May 1882 he was created a baronet.

Lawes acted on a great variety of commissions and committees, including the royal commission on the sewage of towns, and his advice was in constant demand on every variety of agricultural subjects. Rothamsted was for many years before his death a place of pilgrimage for men of science from all countries, students, farmers, and all interested in agricultural research. The earliest laboratory (an old barn) was replaced in 1855 by a new structure — still in use — which was erected by subscribers as a testimonial to Lawes's services in behalf of British agriculture; it was presented to him with a silver candelabrum at a public meeting at Rothamsted on 19 July 1855 (Agric. Gazette, 21 July 1855, p.491: for Lawes's speech on that occasion see Journal R.A.S.E. 1900, p. 519).

In 1893, when the Rothamsted experiments had been conducted for a period of fifty years, Lawes was presented by public subscription with his portrait, by Mr. Hubert Herkomer, R.A., a huge monolithic boulder being at the same time set up in front of the laboratory, with an inscription that it was 'to commemorate the completion of fifty years of continuous experiments (the first of their kind) in agriculture conducted at Rothamsted by Sir John Bennet Lawes and Joseph Henry Gilbert, a.d. mdcccxciii.' Edward VII, then prince of Wales, placed himself at the head of the movement for commemorating the Rothamsted jubilee, and signed the address presented by the subscribers, which spoke of Lawes as 'one of the most disinterested as well as the most scientific of our public benefactors.' The portrait, granite memorial, and addresses from learned societies, both British and foreign, with which Lawes was connected, were presented at a public ceremonial at Rothamsted on 29 July 1893, over which Mr. Herbert Gardner, M.P. (afterwards Lord Burghclere), then minister for agriculture, presided.

Lawes was below the middle stature, and was careless in matters of dress; but his rugged and striking face at once commanded attention, and his exposition of his experiments to an appreciative listener was most telling and instructive. He was fond of deer-stalking and salmon-fishing, and until 1895 went regularly to Scotland for purposes of sport, though his greatest enjoyment was in his farming experiments. He found time, however, to interest himself in a very practical manner in the welfare of the villagers and labourers at Harpenden, near Rothamsted, starting in 1852 allotment gardens for them, and increasing the number from time to time, so that they now number 334 (see 'Allotments and Small Holdings' in Journal R.A.S.E. 1892, pp. 451–2). From the beginning he gave prizes for the best gardens, and in 1857 he built for the allotment holders a clubhouse, managed entirely by themselves (ibid. 1877, pp. 387–393). Attempts at supplying the various wants of the labourers at wholesale prices, on a co-operative system, commenced in 1859, and Charles Dickens wrote for the first number of 'All the Year Round' (30 April 1859) an article entitled 'A Poor Man and his Beer,' in which the relations of Lawes (who is called in the article 'Friar Bacon') and his labourers are described. The Pig Club and the Flour Club, started by Lawes, and the Harpenden Labourers' Store Society (subsequently formed), failed after a time for want of support from the members, but the clubhouse still exists and is a permanent success. In 1856 Lawes started a savings bank, giving five per cent. interest on deposits; and as he found after a time that if the bank were to prosper he must receive the money himself, it became his custom to spend an hour every Saturday evening in this work, which continued until the general introduction of post-office savings banks.

Lawes died on 31 Aug. 1900, and was buried at Harpenden in the presence of a large and representative assemblage of agriculturists on 4 Sept. 1900. The portrait by Mr. Herkomer, painted by subscription in 1893, hangs at Rothamsted. A reproduction of it appears in the 'Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society' for 30 Sept. 1900, with a memoir. Lawes married, on 28 Dec. 1842, Caroline, daughter of Andrew Fountaine of Warford Hall, Norfolk, and by her, who died in 1895, left issue one daughter and one son, Charles Bennett (b. 1843), who succeeded to the baronetcy.

[Journal Royal Agric. Soc. 1900, pp. 511-24 (memoir, with portrait), and earlier vols. quoted above; Agricultural Gazette, 2 Jan. 1888, p. 13 (autobiographical note of his earlier years); Transactions Highland and Agricultural Society, 1895 (portrait, and summary of experiments); Reminiscences of Sir John Lawes (three articles in Agricultural Gazette for 17 and 24 Sept. and 8 Oct. 1900, by R. Warington, F.R.S., a former assistant in the Rothamsted laboratory). Lawes and his experiments are constantly referred to in the agricultural literature of the second half of the nineteenth century.]

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