Open main menu

The Times/1900/Obituary/John Bennet Lawes

< The Times‎ | 1900

Death of Sir John Bennet Lawes.

We regret to announce that the illness of Sir John Lawes, mentioned in our columns yesterday, has terminated fatally. The cause of death was an attack of dysentery. The more favourable news of Thursday evening led to a hope that the patient may recover his strength, but the improvement was not maintained and he passed away early yesterday morning.

John Bennet Lawes was born in 1814, and was the son of the late Mr. John Bennet Lawes, of Rothamsted, Herts, who died in 1822. He was educated at Eton, and afterwards at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he went in 1832 for a period of three years. As his inclinations were scientific rather than classical, his earlier studies had little direct bearing upon his future career. Before he reached the age of 20, however, he had acquired an intimate knowledge of British Pharmacopœpia. Succeeding to the paternal estates in 1834, he amused himself by sowing on his farm poppies, hemlock, henbane, belladonna, and other plants, the active principles of which were at that time coming to be better understood. In the year named farmers were suffering from the abundance of crops, and wheat, in spite of a rigid policy of protection, was at a very low value, the annual average prices per quarter having been 46s. 2d. in 1834, and only 39s. 4d. in 1835. Having at that time the Home Farm of 250 acres in hand, Mr. Lawes commenced a series of experiments with the view of obtaining explanations of certain imperfectly understood points in agriculture. Accordingly, in 1837 and the two following years, tests were made of the effects of various manures upon plants growing in pots, and the beneficial results following the manuring of turnips with phosphates that had been treated with sulphuric acid were then for the time first observed, In 1840 and 1841 similar experiments were conducted in the field, the upshot of which was that in 1842 a patent taken out for treating mineral phosphates with sulphuric acid marked the beginning of the manufacture of artificial manures, an industry which has since attained enormous dimensions. In 1843 a young chemist Dr. (now Sir) J. Henry Gilbert, a former pupil of Liebig. became associated with Mr. Lawes, and the foundation of the Rothamsted Agricultural Experiment Station dates from this year. With the exception of the station founded by Doussingault at Bechelbronn in Alsace, the Rothamstead station is older than any other, for the earliest German station (Möckern) was not founded till 1852, whilst the first of the American stations (Middletown, Connecticut) dates only from 1875.

To indicate ever so briefly the scope of the investigations which have been successfully conducted at Rothamsted would be, in effect, to summarize the history of the progress of agricultural chemistry during the last half-century. Two main lines of inquiry have followed, the one relating to farm crops and the other to farm animals. In the field experiments the method adopted has been to grow some of the most important rotation crops (wheat, barley, oats, beans, clover, roots, potatoes), 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 kind 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, have also been made. Concerning the field in which the the wheat experiments are conducted, a visitor from beyond the Atlantic once said to Sir John Lawes, "Americans have learnt more from this field than from any other agricultural experiment in the world." The plot upon which wheat has been continuously grown, year after year, for more than 50 years, without manure of any kind, the land merely being kept free from weeds, is in the highest degree remarkable, for it has given over the whole period an average yield of between 13 and 14 bushels of dressed grain per acre, which is more than the annual average yield of the crop as grown in the United States and several other leading wheat countries. The manurial experiment upon the mixed herbage of permanent meadow, carried out over a long series of year, have yielded results of the highest practical value, and in particular they have shown what a dominant factor is the character of the season in determining the size and quality of the crop. The field experiments in general have demonstrated how essential are nitrogenous manures for cereal crops, potash manures for leguminous crops, and phosphate manures for turnips and swedes. The relative values of sulphate of ammonia and nitrate of soda as sources of nitrogen, the composition of rain and drainage waters, the utilization of town sewage, and the manufacture of silage are other lines of inquiry which in turn received attention. The publication in 1861 of the classical memoir on the sources of the nitrogen of vegetation marked an epoch in the history of plant physiology. The question as to whether plants assimilate free or uncombined nitrogen was answered unreservedly in the negative, and for more than a quarter of a century this was regarded as a cardinal doctrine, if so it may be termed, of physiological faith. But as our knowledge of micro-organisms advanced, the position take up with so much confidence had to be reviewed, and in 1891 it was admitted, in a Rothamsted paper dealing with the sources of the nitrogen of our leguminous crops, that considerable fixation of free nitrogen may—and does—take place, in his brochure on "Fertility," published in 1881, Sir John Lawes stereotyped the views which he had enunciated 20 years previously, and thereby added much to the difficulty of modifying his opinion at a later date. The 70 pages of this masterly pamphlet all pointed to one conclusion—that the soil is a mine and not a laboratory. The author wrote:—"If the evidence of the Rothamsted experiments up to the present time has not established beyond all cavil that practically the source of the whole of the nitrogen in our crops is the store within the soil itself, and the nitrogenous manures brought upon it, there can be little doubt that in the course of their future progress they will afford conclusive evidence on this point." Nevertheless, ten years subsequent to the publication of these words conclusive evidence came from Rothamsted itself which pointed in quite the opposite direction. It is a matter of regret that Sir John Lawes did not find an opportunity of rewriting this essay on "Fertility" in the light of the fuller knowledge since attained of the micro-organisms of the soil.

The experiments on cattle, sheep and pigs dealt with the quantity of food consumed in relation to a given weight of animal in a given time; the quantity consumed to produce a given amount of increase in live weight; the proportion, and relative development, of the different organs or parts of animals; the composition of the animals in different conditions as to age and fatness; the composition of the manure in relation to that of the food consumed; the yield of milk in relation to the food required to produce it; and the influence of different descriptions of food on the quantity and on the composition of the milk. Incidentally there came up for consideration such important questions as the sources in the food of fat produced in the animal body, the characteristic demands for nitrogenous or non-nitrogenous constituents of food in the exercise of muscular power, and the comparative characters of animal and vegetable foods in human dietaries.

Most of the results of the Rothamsted experiments have been give to the world, through the medium of the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, from the year 1847 onwards, though many other serial publications were utilized for the purpose. About 130 separate memoirs or papers have been published. Some of the more remarkable of these have dealt with turnip culture (1847), the amount of water given off by plants (1850), the fattening qualities of different breeds of sheep (1851 and 1855), the composition of some of the animals fed and slaughtered as human food (1858), the experiments on the fattening of oxen (1861), the relative values of malted and unmalted barley as food for stock (1866), the valuations of unexhausted manures (1875), nitrification (1878), Is higher farming a remedy for lower prices? (1879), experiments on the mixed herbage of permanent meadow for more than 20 years (1879), our climate and our wheat crops (1880), composition of rain and drainage waters (1881), nitrogen in soils (1882), the growth of root crops for many years in succession on the same land (1887), the growth of potatoes for 12 years in succession on the same land (1888), the growth of leguminous crops for many years in succession on the same land (1889), the food of our agricultural crops (1890), the sources of nitrogen of our leguminous crops (1891), allotments and small holdings (1892), home produce, imports, consumption, and the price of wheat, over 40 harvests (1893), the rotation of crops (1894), and the feeding of animals for the production of meat, milk, and manure, and for the exercise of force (1895). In 1896, Sir John Lawes, dealt with the depression of corn prices and the production of wheat, and concluded by expressing the opinion that such was the extent to which the wheat-producing capabilities of the world had been opened up that it could not be said that the circumstances indicated much prospect of a substantial and permanent rise in prices. He reverted to this subject in 1898 when he discussed in our columns the views on the wheat question enunciated by Sir W. Crookes at the Bristol meeting of the British Association that year. In 1897 he dealt with the report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture and revised his well-known tables relating to the valuation of unexhausted manure, modifying these in accordance with altered prices and entering upon the difficult question of compensation. He followed this in the succeeding year with a paper relating to the valuation of the manures obtained by the consumption of foods for the production of milk. Later on he dealt with a subject of considerable current interest—namely, the growth of sugar-beet and the manufacture of sugar in the United Kingdom. This paper was written with characteristic caution, and it did not extend much encouragement to the advocates of beet culture and sugar manufacture in England. The progress of Sir John Lawes's unique investigations into the mixed herbage of grass land was marked by the publication, early this year of an elaborate paper in the "Philosophical Transactions" of the Royal Society, dealing with the chemical results. From the year 1862, onwards Sir John Lawes sent to the The Times every October an estimate of the yield of the wheat crop of the United Kingdom for this current season.

Sir John Lawes took a cordial interest in the welfare of the Royal Agricultural Society, of which he was elected a member in 1846. He had occupied a seat on the council since 1848, was elected a vice-president and governor in 1878, and a trustee in 1891. When, at about the time of the jubilee of the Rothamsted experiments, he was offered by the council the highest honour in its power to bestow, he pleaded advancing years and increasing deafness as a reason for not succeeding to the office of president of the society. He took an active part in 1876 in the establishment of the society's experimental farm at Woburn, rendered possible by the generosity of the Duke of Bedford, and frequently paid visits of inspection in order to note the progress of the investigations and to compare the results with those obtained at Rothamsted. In 1854 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1867 was awarded, jointly with Dr. (now Sir Henry) Gilbert, the Royal medal. In 1877 the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D., and in 1894 the University of Cambridge the degree of D.Sc. In 1882 he was created a baronet. As long ago as 1854 the national importance of the work he was carrying out induced the agriculturists of the country to raise a public subscription for the presentation of a testimonial to Mr. Lawes, which at his suggestion took the form of a well-built laboratory in which most of the chemical work relating to the investigation has been conducted. It was within the shadow of this laboratory that, in July, 1893, a large gathering of agriculturists and scientific men, representatives of many countries, assembled to celebrate the jubilee of the Rothamsted experiments. Numerous congratulatory addresses were read, and Sir John Lawes was presented with his portrait, painted for the subscribers by Mr. Herkomer, R.A.; whilst, facing Harpenden-common, a granite memorial was erected "to commemorate the completion of 50 years of continuous experiments (the first of their kind) in agriculture, conducted at Rothamsted."

Sir John Lawes was one of the greatest benefactors of agriculture—perhaps the greatest—the world has seen. His originality in experimental research and his inflexibility of purpose, coupled with a genius of no ordinary kind, enable him to discover grand truths which have had a profound influence upon the progress of agriculture. Happily, through the munificence of their founder, the Rothamsted experiments do not cease at his death. By a trust deed executed in 1889, Sir John Lawes set apart a sum of £100,000, together with the laboratory and certain areas of land, for the prosecution of the investigations in perpetuity. The unique feature of the work at Rothamsted—its long unbroken continuity—will thus be characteristic of it in an ever-increasing degree.

Sir John Lawes married in 1842, a daughter of the late Mr. A. Fountain, of Narford Hall, Norfolk. Lady Lawes died in 1895. The baronetcy passes to Sir John's only son, Mr. Charles Bennet Lawes, the sculptor, who was born in 1843, is married and has a son born in 1872.