Wilson, John (1812-1888) (DNB00)

WILSON, JOHN (1812–1888), agriculturist, was born in London in November 1812. He was educated at University College, London, and afterwards completed his training in Paris, where he studied medicine and chemistry under Payen, Boussingault, and Gay Lussac. In 1845–6 he was in charge of the admiralty coals investigation under Sir Henry de la Beche. From 1846 to 1850 he was principal of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. His term of office was distinguished chiefly by an attempt to convert the college farm from pasture to arable land, which involved much expense and met with considerable opposition. In 1850 a suggestion on the part of the council for a thorough change of the organisation of the college into that of a school for farmers' sons led to Wilson's resignation. He was succeeded by the Rev. J. S. Haygarth, and the college continued its work much on the former lines.

In 1854 Wilson was, on the death of Professor Low, elected to the chair of agriculture and rural economy in the university of Edinburgh. This professorship had been founded in 1790 by Sir William Pulteney, but the salary attached to it at this time was little more than nominal. In 1868 he succeeded Professor Kelland as secretary to the senate of the Edinburgh University, and in the course of the same year, chiefly owing to the exertions of the Highland and Agricultural Society, the endowment of the chair of agriculture was increased (Journ. Roy. Agr. Soc. Engl. 1885, xxi. 525). Wilson's methods as a teacher were severely criticised, partly no doubt because some of the English systems of farming which he advocated ran counter to Scottish prejudices. The fact, however, that most of the important chairs of agriculture in Scotland and many elsewhere were filled by his pupils is sufficient testimony to his merit as a teacher.

In 1885 Wilson resigned his chair at Edinburgh, and was appointed emeritus professor. In the spring of 1886 the honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him. He died at Sandfield, Tunbridge Wells, on 27 March 1888.

An important characteristic of Wilson's career was his intercourse and relations with foreign agricultural authorities and societies. In 1851 he filled the position of deputy juror at the International Exhibition; in 1853 he was sent as royal commissioner to the United States, and in the same year was appointed knight of the French Legion of Honour. In 1855 he acted as commissioner to the British agricultural department in the exhibition at Paris. At different periods he also rendered important services to the agricultural departments of Canada, Austria, Denmark, and Germany. He was a corresponding member of numerous foreign agricultural societies, and in 1885 he was created knight commander of the Brazilian order of the Rose.

Wilson wrote:

  1. ‘Catalogue de la collection des produits agricoles, végétaux et animaux de l'Angleterre … exposés par le Board of Trade à l'Exposition Universelle de Paris en 1855,’ Paris, 1855, 8vo.
  2. ‘The Agriculture of the French Exhibition: an Introductory Lecture delivered in the University of Edinburgh, Session I., 1855–6,’ Edinburgh, 1855, 8vo.
  3. ‘Agriculture, Past and Present: being two Introductory Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh,’ Edinburgh, 1855, 2nd edit. 8vo.

By far the most valuable, however, of his writings is

  1. ‘Our Farm Crops, being a popular Scientific Description of the Cultivation, Chemistry, Diseases, Remedies, &c., of the various Crops cultivated in Great Britain and Ireland,’ London, 1860, 2 vols. 8vo. This is still a standard work of reference, and nothing better of its kind has ever appeared in agricultural literature.

Wilson edited a ‘Report on the Present State of the Agriculture of Scotland,’ arranged under the auspices of the Highland and Agricultural Society, to be presented at the international congress at Paris in June 1878.

[Scotsman, 29 March 1888; Times, 2 April 1888; Agricultural Gazette, 9 April 1888, p. 333.]

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