The Times/1901/Obituary/Joseph Henry Gilbert

< The Times‎ | 1901


We regret to announce that Sir J. H. Gilbert, the well-known agricultural chemist and collaborator with the late Sir J. B. Lawes in the famous Rothamsted experiments, died yesterday at Harpenden, St. Albans. For some time he had been in failing health, and although he seemed to derive benefit from the visit, which, in spite of his 84 years, he made to Scotland as usual in the autumn, he had of late been gradually growing weaker, and his death was not altogether unexpected.

Born at Hull in 1817, Joseph Henry Gilbert was the son of the Rev. Joseph Gilbert and his wife, Ann Taylor, of Ongar, who was known as an authoress. A gunshot accident after he had left school resulted in the loss of sight in one eye, and impaired his health for some time. His college career began at Glasgow University, where he devoted much attention to chemistry, which he studied in the laboratory of Professor Thomas Thomson. He proceeded to University College, London, and listened there to lectures by Professor Graham, besides working in the laboratory of Dr. Antony Todd Thomson, where John Bennett Lawes, three years Gilbert's senior, was also a pupil. He next went to Germany to study chemistry under Liebig at the University of Giessen, and he took there the degree of Ph.D. at the same time as Lyon Playfair, afterwards Lord Playfair. On his return to London Dr. Gilbert acted as assistant to his old teacher, Dr. A. T. Thomson, at University College in 1840-41. Subsequently he devoted some time to the study of the chemistry of calico printing and dyeing in the neighbourhood of Manchester. It was in 1843 that the decisive step of his life was taken, for in that year he became, at the age of twenty-six, associated with John Bennet Lawes, and assumed the control of the chemical laboratory at the Rothamsted experiment station, Harpenden. The collaboration thus begun, and destined to be so fruitful in the domain of agricultural research, lasted for the long period of fifty-seven years, and was only terminated by the death of Sir John Lawes on August 31, 1900.

By far the larger part of Sir Henry Gilbert's work was given to the world in papers issued under the joint authorship of Sir John Lawes and himself. A copious list of these was printed in The Times of September 1, 1900 in our obituary notice of Sir John Lawes. The appreciation of which the squire of Rothamsted held his colleague found public expression so long ago as 1855, the year in which a new chemical laboratory was built at Harpenden and presented as a a testimonial—in acknowledgement of his services to British agriculture—to Mr. Lawes, who in the course of his speech returning thanks said:—

To Dr. Gilbert more especially I consider a debt of gratitude is 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 the pursuits of a science which has hardly a recognized existence. For twelve years our acquaintance has existed, and I hope twelve more years will find it continuing.

As a matter of fact this unique association of two scientific investigators continued for nearly thrice twelve years longer. Dr. Gilbert was elected a Fellow of the Chemical Society in 1841, within three months of its foundation, but before his admission to the society he had undertaken the translation of a paper by Redtenbacher and Liebig on "The Atomic Weight of Carbon," which occupies eighteen pages in the first volume of the society's memoirs.

In 1882-88 he filled the office of President of the Chemical Society, and when, on November 11, 1898, the society gave a banquet to the past-presidents who had been Fellows of the society for fifty years or more, he was the senior of the past-presidents then entertained, the five others being Sir Edward Frankland, Professor William Odling, Sir Frederick Abel, Professor A. W. Williamson, and Dr. J. H. Gladstone. He was elected into the Royal Society in 1860, and in 1867 the council awarded to him jointly with Mr. Lawes one of the Royal Medals, the president Sir Edward Sabine, remarking on that occasion:—

Messrs. Lawes and Gilbert have been engaged for the last 24 years in a systematic series of researches upon agricultural chemistry, with a view of determining by exact experiments, the principles, chemical and physiological, which are involved in the general and fundamental process of successful agriculture.

Dr. Gilbert was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1875, and he was also a member of the Royal Meteorological Society. He was president of the chemical section of the British Association at the Swansea meeting in 1880, when he delivered a striking address on the relations of chemistry to agriculture. On the resuscitation of the Sibthorpian Professorship of Rural Economy at Oxford in 1884 Dr. Gilbert was appointed to the chair, from which he retired six years later. He was honorary professor of the Royal Agricultural College, Oirencester, and in this capacity delivered some very notable occasional lectures. His honorary degrees included that of M.A. Oxford, 1884; LL.D. Glasgow 1883; LL.D. Edinburgh, 1890; and D.Sc. Cambridge, 1894. He was elected an honorary member of the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1883, and like Sir John Lawes he was an honorary member of many foreign agricultural and scientific societies. In February, 1894, the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House presented both to Sir Henry Gilbert and to Sir John Lawes the Albert Gold Medal awarded them by the Society of Arts "for their joint services to scientific agriculture, and notably for the researches which, throughout a period of 50 years, have been carried on by them at the experimental farm, Rothamsted." In addition to his travels in Europe, Dr. Gilbert visited Canada and the United States in 1882, and again in 1884, in the pursuit of agricultural inquiry. The Lawes Agricultural Trust provides for the periodical delivery in the United States of a series of lectures dealing with the results of the Rothamsted investigations, and at the request of the committee Sir Henry Gilbert discharged this task in 1893.

On the occasion of the celebration of the jubilee of the Rothamsted experiments, which took place at Harpenden on July 29, 1893, a massive silver salver was presented by public subscription to Dr. Gilbert "in commemoration of the completion of 50 years of unremitting labour in the cause of agricultural science." Addresses were at the same time presented to him from various public bodies, including the Royal Society and the Royal Agricultural Society. In the course of the last-named it was stated:—

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.

In expressing his acknowledgements Dr. Gilbert referred to the coldness and the doubt with which the results of their earlier experiments where received, especially when they departed from orthodox lines. Early prejudices, however, died away, and eventually those who had originally been their opponents became their advocates and supporters. Agriculture, he said, more perhaps than any other art or industry, depended upon the intelligent application not of one but of many branches of science; and hence it was that the experimental agriculturist found himself in contact at one time with the botanist, at another time with the physiologist, and again with the chemist and the geologist, the statistician and the economist. A week or two later Dr. Gilbert received the honour of knighthood. The jubilee proceedings included the erection of a memorial in the form of a huge granite boulder which stands in front of the laboratory at Harpenden. It bears 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. MDCCCXCIII."

In the edition of the "Year-book" of the United States Department of Agriculture, which was specifically prepared for use in the American Section of the Paris International Exhibition in 1900, there is a review of the relation of chemistry to agriculture. Accompanying it is a full-page plate, entitled "Some Early Workers in Agricultural Chemistry," and embracing five portraits—those of Sir Henry Gilbert, Sir Humphry Davy, Lavoisier, Boussingault, and Liebig. Of these men the only one still living at the publication of this historically-interesting group was Sir Henry Gilbert.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.