Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/May 1893/Sketch of Samuel William Johnson



PROF. SAMUEL WILLIAM JOHNSON is eminent for the services which he has rendered to scientific agriculture as an experimenter, a contributor to its literature, and a teacher; and for his agency, always active and earnest, in securing the introduction of whatever could advance its standards or add to the prosperity of the farming interest. A descendant of Robert Johnson, one of the founders of the town of New Haven, he was born in Kingsboro, Fulton County, New York, July 3, 1830. When he was four years old the family removed to Deer River, Lewis County, in the "Black River country." He was taught in the common school and in Lowville Academy, where he studied Latin, Greek, French, algebra, physics, botany, and chemistry. His home, says the American Agriculturist, was upon a large, productive, and well-managed farm, where he became familiar with a wide range of agricultural practice. He taught in the common schools during the winters of 1846-'47 and 1847-'48, and during 1848-'49 was teacher of natural science in the Flushing Institute, Long Island. In 1850 he entered the Yale Scientific School, where he spent eighteen months under Profs. John P. Norton and B. Silliman, Jr., studying agricultural chemistry. He served during the winter of 1851-'52 as instructor in the natural sciences in the New York State Normal School at Albany. Having spent the succeeding winter in work in the laboratory at New Haven, he went to Germany in January, 1853, where he spent two years in study at Leipsic and Munich, under Erdmann, Liebig, von Kobell, and Pettenkofer. Thence he went to England, visiting the Paris Exposition on the way, and spent the summer of 1855 in study under Frankland.

In September, 1855, he became Chief Assistant in Chemistry in the Scientific School of Yale College, and took charge of the laboratory. The next year he was appointed Professor of Analytical Chemistry in that school, and in 1857 he took charge also, succeeding Prof. John A. Porter, of the chair of Agricultural Chemistry. In 1875 he became Professor of Theoretical and Agricultural Chemistry; and, in addition to the performance of these several duties, he has taught organic chemistry since 1870.

With the establishment of the State Board of Agriculture of Connecticut in 1866, Prof. Johnson was constituted one of its members. On expiration of his term of service, two years afterward, he was appointed chemist to the board, and has served in that capacity ever since. He began to advocate the establishment of a State Agricultural Experiment Station as early as 1873. The act of the Legislature organizing the station was passed in 1877, and, on its going into effect. Prof. Johnson was appointed director. "For many years," says the Rural New-Yorker, "the station was confined to two small rooms, and the appliances and works of reference were for the most part loaned from Yale College or borrowed from the professor's private laboratory and library."

Mr. Johnson began his literary work while still a student, writing for the agricultural papers. Among the earliest of his publications of general interest was an address before the State Agricultural Society of Connecticut, in 1866, on Fraud in Chemical Fertilizers. This was followed by the adoption of measures intended to protect buyers of fertilizers against imposition through adulterations. As chemist to the State Agricultural Society he made a series of reports on fertilizers in 1857, 1858, and 1859, by means of which knowledge on the subject was extended, and frauds received a further check. Besides his official reports, "which have been models for works of their kind," Prof. Johnson's writings include many contributions to the agricultural press, which have been highly appreciated, and several books on the special subjects of his studies. The best known of these are How Crops Grow; How Crops Feed; Peat and its Uses as Fertilizer and Fuel. The earliest and best known of these books—How Crops Grow, published in 1868—embodied the results of studies undertaken by the author in preparing instruction in agricultural science. Together with its companion volume—How Crops Feed—it was intended to present concisely but fully the state of the science at the time regarding the nutrition of the higher plants, and the relations of the atmosphere, water, and soil to agricultural vegetation. In it the chemical composition of agricultural plants was described in detail, the substances indispensable to their growth were indicated, and an account was given of the apparatus and processes by which the plant takes up its food. The book was received with great favor in America and in Europe. It was republished in England under the joint editorship of Profs. Church and Dyer, of the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester; a translation of it was published in Germany under the instigation of Prof. Liebig; and other versions of it have been made in Swedish, Italian, and Japanese, and twice in Russian.

In view of the great advance that had been made in all branches of science, a new edition of How Crops Grow was issued in 1890, in which the purpose was guarded of bringing the treatise up to date as fully as possible without greatly enlarging its bulk or changing its essential character.

The account of the sources of the food of plants, which were noticed in this volume in only the briefest manner, was reserved for the next book, its complement. How Plants Feed, published in 1870. It was exclusively occupied with the subject of vegetable nutrition. The writer, the author said, did not flatter himself that he had produced a popular book. "He has not sought to excite the imagination with high-wrought pictures of overflowing fertility as the immediate result of scientific discussion or experiment; nor has he attempted to make a show of revolutionizing his subject by bold or striking speculations. His office has been to digest the cumbrous mass of evidence in which the truths of vegetable nutrition lie buried out of the reach of the ordinary inquirer, and to set them forth in proper order and in plain dress for their legitimate and sober uses." The author's method was to bring forth all accessible facts, to present their evidence on the topic under discussion, and dispassionately to record their verdict. The books were therefore commended to students of agriculture on the farm or in the school. Besides these books. Prof. Johnson edited Fresenius's Quantitative Analysis, and two editions of his Qualitative Analysis.

The American Agriculturist names Prof. Johnson as one of the trio, consisting of Johnson, Gössman, and the late Dr. Cook, of New Jersey, "who have done so much for agricultural science and experimentation."

The purposes and efforts of Prof. Johnson to make the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station of practical benefit to farmers are obvious to every one who inquires into the character of the work done there, or who will peruse a series of the reports of the institution. These reports are consistently animated by the single thought of those particular features of agricultural science in which the farmers are most immediately interested. One of the predominant crops of the State is grass; the thing the farmers most need to make their agriculture profitable is economical and efficient fertilizers. Accordingly, we find these among the subjects most conspicuously presented. It would be impracticable to go over all the reports seeking instances of this happy adaptation of investigations to the peculiar wants of the people whom it was the station-director's purpose to serve; but two or three from the later reports will illustrate this characteristic of his work. Attention is directed in the report for 1886 to the important relation of the mechanical constitution of soils to the growth of plants. Very little practical benefit, the author observes, is commonly obtained from the analysis of any special soil beyond the detection of some deleterious ingredient, or proving the relative deficiency of one or more needful elements. In most of the cases where the station had undertaken to make soil analyses, the results had probably disappointed those who supplied the samples. It was pointed out as an obvious defect of the ordinary chemical analysis that it could give at the best only an imperfect or one-sided view of the character of the soil. Two soils might agree fairly in chemical composition, and yet differ extremely in their fertility. Again, two soils might be about equally productive, and yet have unlike chemical composition. The physical characters of a soil—the texture, porosity, tenacity, amenability to tillage, retentiveness for water, capacity for heat, etc.—equally with the chemical composition, influence its productiveness and value. These considerations had been appreciated for a long time, attempts had been made to take account of the physical capacities of soils; and of late years much attention had been bestowed upon their mechanical analysis—that is, on separating into various grades, according to the dimensions of their particles. Such mechanical analysis was in most cases essential to any conclusive investigation of a soil.

In the report for 1887 the intention was declared to include in the forage garden of the station specimens of all the grasses found in Connecticut. There were about one hundred and twenty species of grasses in the' State, of which eighty-one were then growing in the garden. Prominence was given to persistent meadow, pasture, and lawn grasses, and to those which continually reproduce by culture and seeding; also to other forage plants, sedges, etc. The question of methods of improving Connecticut grass lands so as to make them more productive and more permanent, wherever that was desirable, was declared a question of the first importance. To answer such questions, it is needed to know more about the plants of this character which would grow in the State with less care than others, and with no expense for seeding, their habits of growth, seed production, fitness for meadow and pasture on different soils, feeding value, rooting peculiarities, growth with other varieties, possible improvement by cultivation or by selection of seed, and the effect of different fertilizers. A more general and closer observation of the appearance and behavior of all the useful grasses was also needed, so that they might be known by botanists and farmers at sight through the spring, summer, and fall. Names were needed, also, which should be current everywhere, free from all confusion; because without names there could be no discussion of grasses away from the grasses themselves.

With this eminently practical direction and purpose of his work. Prof. Johnson is a devoted student of science, and an earnest advocate of scientific methods of investigation. He has a pleasant, modest manner, a full knowledge of human nature, and "a practical conception of what farmers want of agricultural experiment stations." As a writer, "his style is clear and concise, yet delightfully smooth, and most agreeably finished."