Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/May 1894/Sketch of Sir Joseph Henry Gilbert

PSM V45 D012 Joseph Henry Gilbert.jpg


ON the 29th of July, 1893, the little village of Harpenden, in Hertfordshire, England, witnessed a rare ceremonial and was stirred by unusual emotions. The presidents of the scientific societies of England were there, with other of the most eminent men of science in the kingdom and foreigners of like standing; while others, their peers, were represented by letters. Mr. Herbert Gardner, M. P. and Minister of Agriculture of the United Kingdom, presided; by his side were the Duke of Devonshire, President of the Royal Agricultural Society; the Duke of Westminster, who, as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Rothamsted Jubilee Fund, might be considered as manager of the business for which the meeting was held; Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society; Dr. Michael Foster; Dr. H. E. Armstrong, President of the Chemical Society; Prof. Charles Stewart, President of the Linnæan Society; Sir J. D. Hooker; Sir John Evans, Treasurer of the Royal Society and Honorary Treasurer of the Rothamsted Jubilee Fund; the Earl of Clarendon, Lord Lieutenant of the County of Herts; Sir John Lubbock, M, P., Trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Fund; Mr. Ernest Clarke, Secretary to the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Honorary Secretary of the Rothamsted Jubilee Fund; representatives of the Société des Agriculteurs de France; and other men whose names are as significant and representative. Letters were read from the Prince of Wales, to whom is given the credit of having originated the celebration; Prince Christian; the Marquis of Salisbury; Prof. Huxley; Sir Gabriel Stokes; M. Tisserand, Director of Agriculture for France; the Association of Experimental Stations in Canada and the United States; M. Pasteur; M. Déhéran, and other foreigners famous in science. These distinguished guests were assembled, and the ceremonies of the day were performed, to do honor to the work of two men—plain farmers, we might correctly call them—who had spent their lives in the study of the best means of improving the yield and quality of agricultural crops—Sir John Bennet Lawes and Mr. Joseph Henry Gilbert.

We have already given, in a sketch of J. B. Lawes, in Volume XXVIII of The Popular Science Monthly, a brief account of the early history of the Rothamsted Agricultural Experiment Station.

It was established by Mr. Lawes on the estate which he entered by inheritance in 1834. He had been engaged for several years in chemical experiments, chiefly with reference to the preparation of drugs. As he wrote to a friend in 1888, he had not thought of any connection between chemistry and agriculture till his attention was attracted by the remark of a gentleman, who farmed near him, that on one farm bones were invaluable for the turnip crop, and on another farm they were useless. A quantity of precipitated gypsum and spent animal charcoal was offered him; he was using much sulphuric acid in his drug experiments; and here he had materials for applying superphosphate and enlarging and extending to the field experiments which he had begun with plants in pots. In 1843 Mr. Joseph Henry Gilbert became associated with Mr. Lawes, and the experiments have been continued since then without interruption under the joint direction of the two. The celebration we have mentioned was held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of this connection and of the beginning of the real work of the Rothamsted Station. Both men were entitled to equal honor in remembrance, and both received it in the tributes which were offered.

Mr. Gilbert was born at Hull, August 1, 1817. His father was the late Rev. Joseph Gilbert, and his mother was well known as an author, under the name of Ann Taylor of Ongar. After going through school he was injured by a gunshot, by which his health was impaired for a time, and he lost the use of one eye. He entered the University of Glasgow, where he gave special attention to chemistry and worked in the laboratory of the late Prof. Thomas Thomson. Next he went to University College, London, where he attended the classes of Prof. Graham and others, and worked in the laboratory of the late Dr. Anthony Todd Thomson. Having spent a short time in the laboratory of Prof. Liebig, at Giessen, and received the degree of Ph. D., he returned to University College, London, and acted as class and laboratory assistant to Prof. Thomson in the winter and summer sessions of 1840-'41, attending other courses in the college at the same time. After this he devoted some time to the chemistry of calico-printing, dyeing, etc., in the neighborhood of Manchester. From 1843, when he became associated with Mr. Lawes at Rothamsted as director of the laboratory, his career has been recorded in the history of that institution; and it is difficult to separate the work of the two, who have co-operated harmoniously and efficiently. The results of their investigations have been published in a series of papers, now numbering more than a hundred, in various journals, among which may be mentioned: The Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society, the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, the Journal of the Chemical Society, the Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Journal of the Statistical Society, the Journal of the Society of Arts, etc.; also in official reports and elsewhere.

Dr. Gilbert was elected a member of the Chemical Society in 1841, the year of its formation, and he contributed to the first volume of its memoirs a translation of a paper on the Atomic Weight of Carbon, by Prof. Redtenbacher and Prof. Liebig. He was president of the society in 1882-'83. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, and in 1867 the council of the society awarded to him, in conjunction with Mr. Lawes, one of the royal medals. He is also a Fellow of the Linnæan Society and of the Royal Meteorological Society. He was President of the Chemical Section of the British Association in 1880. He traveled considerably in the United States and Canada in 1882 and 1884, studying the conditions of the agriculture of these countries. He was appointed Sibthorpian Professor of Rural Economy in the University of Oxford in 1884, and was reappointed for a second period of three years in 1887. He has honorary degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. He is a life governor of University College, London, an honorary member of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, of the Chemico-Agricultural Society of Ulster, of the Academy of Agriculture and Forestry of Petrovskoie, and of the Royal Agricultural Society of Hanover; foreign member of the Royal Agricultural Academy of Sweden; and corresponding member of the Institute of France (Academy of Sciences), of the Society of Agriculturists of France, of the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, Paris, and of the Institut Agronomique of Gorigovtsk. He is also Chevalier du Mérite Agricole, France, and, in conjunction with Sir J. B. Lawes, gold-medalist of merit for agriculture, Germany.

At the celebration of July 29th, separate testimonials, read by the Duke of Westminster, were addressed to the colleagues by the Prince of Wales. To Mr. Gilbert the prince said, offering his congratulations on the completion of fifty years of the joint continuous labors of the two in the cause of agricultural science: "The nature and importance of these labors are so well known that it is needless to dilate upon them; but if the institution of the various investigations has been due to Sir John Lawes, their ultimate success has been, in a great measure, secured by your scientific skill and unremitting industry. Moreover, by your lectures and writings you have been a leading exponent in this and other countries of the theoretical and practical aspects of the researches that have been undertaken at Rothamsted. A collaboration such as yours with Sir John Lawes, already extending over a period of upward of fifty years, is unexampled in the annals of science. I venture to hope for an extended prolongation of these joint labors, and trust that the names of Lawes and Gilbert, which for so many years have been almost inseparable, may survive in happy conjunction for centuries to come."

The address from members of the Royal Agricultural Society to Mr. Gilbert declared that "in the organizing and systematic arrangement and record of the researches conducted at Rothamsted you have had a leading share; and you have there set before us a model of what all work and experimental inquiry should be. Your investigations into the applications of chemistry to the cultivation of crops and the feeding of live stock have been of the highest possible importance to the practical agriculturist, and the sincere thanks of the agricultural community at large are due and are hereby tendered to you for the scientific skill and indefatigable industry which you have brought to bear upon the conduct of the Rothamsted researches. The Royal Agricultural Society of England is proud of ranking you among its honorary members, and it desires to take this opportunity of expressing its indebtedness to you for your ever-ready counsel and assistance, as well as for the many admirable and exhaustive papers which, in conjunction with Sir John Lawes, you have contributed to the society's journal."

The Royal Society's address disclaimed any attempt m any way to distinguish Mr. Gilbert's share from that of his colleague "in the remarkable work which has, with so much skill and patience, been so long carried on, and, indeed, they know that you would not wish that they should; but they desire to say to you, as they have said to him, that the society is justly proud of your labors. They are glad to bear in mind that the society has been the channel through which most of your more important results have been made known, that for more than thirty years you have been enrolled among the number of its fellows, and they believe they can say that the society has always given you such aid and support as lay in its power. They reflect with satisfaction that the researches at Rothamsted have contributed in a remarkable manner to the advancement of that branch of natural knowledge with which they deal, and your connection with the society gives the president and council, they venture to think, the right to feel something like a paternal pride in the success of an undertaking of which the jubilee marks a stage." The joint address to the two of the Chemical Society recognized the long adherence to the same plan of experiment as evidence of the skill displayed in its inception and as giving to the work its peculiar value, and continued: "While affording guidance to the agriculturist, your researches have elicited information which will ever serve as the foundation of a truly scientific knowledge of the correlation of plant growth and manurial constituents of the soil, and will be of the utmost value in all discussions of the chemistry of plant life. Your researches on the feeding of animals, in like manner, are not only of practical importance, but also shed much light on the processes of animal life." But of even far greater value was the example which their single-minded devotion to the cause of scientific truth and research had afforded to the world. A congratulatory address was received from the Société Nationale d'Agriculture de France.

Sir John Lawes, being called to speak, said that when two persons were joined in marriage they could not part, because they were bound by solemn ties; but the case with respect to himself and Dr. Gilbert was different. Dr. Gilbert could have left him and he could have left Dr. Gilbert at any time during their association. Why had they not done so? Because they had an immense love of the work they were engaged in. Personally, he had delighted in it from the beginning, and had given as much time to it as he could consistently with other duties; but Dr. Gilbert had made it the work of his life. He had been at work not only when he was at home, but had spent what were called his holidays in visiting other countries and places, in putting himself into communication with other bodies, so that he might make his own work more valuable to those at home.

In connection with these remarks it is proper to recall what Mr. Lawes said in 1855, thirty-nine years ago, in his speech at the inauguration of the new laboratory building, erected by public subscription by British agriculturists: "I should be most ungrateful were I to omit to state how greatly I am indebted to those gentlemen whose lives are devoted to the conduct and management of my experiments. To Dr. Gilbert, more especially, I consider a debt of gratitude due from myself and from every agriculturist in Great Britain. It is not every gentleman of his attainments who would subject himself to the caprice of an individual, or risk his reputation by following a science which has hardly a recognized existence. For twelve years our acquaintance has existed, and I hope twelve more years will find it existing." Those "twelve more years" have now increased to thirty-eight "more years," and not the acquaintance only—the close association, too—still exists.

Mr. Gilbert spoke, expressing his gratification at the tributes which had been offered to him, and closed by saying that, however many years were spared to them—and they must necessarily be very few—he hoped they might be able to do something to extend the general knowledge which was the best legacy they could leave to those who would succeed them.

A portrait of Sir John Lawes, by Prof. Hubert Herkomer, representing him as the farmer of Rothamsted, was presented to him, and a silver salver, on which the addresses were deposited, to Dr. Gilbert. A granite bowlder, "turning the scales at eight tons," was set up in front of the laboratory, bearing the inscription, "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. MCCCXCIII." As an additional memorial, forty-four complete sets of the Reports of the Rothamsted Station were presented, at the expense of the nation, to leading public institutions. A few days after the celebration Dr. Gilbert was knighted, "in recognition of his valuable researches for the promotion of agriculture."


A bill is before the British Parliament to prohibit the raising of unsightly erections—having particular reference to advertising structures—to the harm of the rural scenery of Great Britain and Ireland. It applies to fences, gates, posts, hoardings, etc., and to the posting of any printed or written matter, or any picture, so as to be in view from any highway, railway, etc.; but not to such legitimate advertising as is intended to show that the property is to be let or is for sale, or to publish a business that is there carried on. We have a similar law in New York for the protection of natural scenery that might be applied to the appurtenances of property; but who sees to the enforcement of the law we have?