History of Agricultural Research to 1945

3 December 2010 at 1:49 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

The importance of agricultural research in the intellectual history of science should be self-evident. Justus Liebig (1803-1873) was a key figure in both the development of laboratory methodology and agricultural science. Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) famous experiments were in plant breeding. Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) most celebrated work was on the cattle disease, anthrax. William Bateson (1861-1926), who coined the term genetics, was the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, 1910-1926. Statistician, geneticist, and eugenics proponent R. A. Fisher (1890-1962) was employed by the Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919 to 1933 (and temporarily relocated there from 1939 to 1943). Interwar and postwar virologists and molecular biologists did a great deal of work on the economically destructive tobacco mosaic virus.

From a very informative post at the history-of-science blog Ether Wave Propaganda (via Randy). In economics and management we’d have to add large swathes of production economics and risk-management research, the early papers in agency and contract theory dealing with sharecropping and land tenure, Grilliches’s work on hybrid corn, and much more. What else would you put on the list?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Food and Agriculture, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Henrik Berglund  |  3 December 2010 at 3:12 am

    Everett Rogers’ undergrad degree was in agriculture at Iowa State University and his work on diffusion was initially focused on farm innovations.

  • 2. Will Thomas  |  3 December 2010 at 4:40 am

    Thanks for the link! We have a history of agricultural science/expertise working group at Imperial, and are starting to look into agricultural economics as well.

    Here’s one I’d add on to the list from my prior research on operations research/management science: The first test of the simplex algorithm in linear programming was on the “nutrition problem” as defined in the Journal of Farm Economics by George Stigler just after World War II.

  • 3. Rafe  |  3 December 2010 at 7:25 am

    Yes, Rogers and Shoemaker on the diffusion of innovations is now into its 5th or 6th edition.

    Agricultural economists were prominent in the debate to get rid of farm protection, and protection generally, in Australia.

    Terrence Kealey is interestingin “The Economics of Scientific Research”. This is from the chapter on the Agricultural Revolution in England.

    New cattle such as the Herefords, new fodder crops, Jethro Tull’s seed drill, and there were agricultural heroes like ‘Turnip’ Townsend, Thomas Coke and Arthur Young. They boosted productivity, even if they did not generate an English haute cuisine (hands up everyone who loves turnips, and why did greens have to be boiled to a colourless mush?). Agricultural shows became a fixture, spreading news of improved breeds and practices. By the mid-nineteenth century existing scientific societies such as the Royal Society and the Lunar Sciety were producing learned studies and new societies formed – the Royal College of Vets (1844) and the Royal Ag College (1845). The Lunar Society of scientists, engineers and industrialsts (note the mix) was so-called because it met every full moon so the members could travel home by moonlight.

    In 1843 the farmers Lawes and Gilbert at Rothamstead turned their farm into a laboratory for long-term studies in soils and pasture management which is still a world leader. And so by 1850 agricultural productivity in Britain was increasing by 0.5% per year, unprecedented in history and the period 1850 to 1875 was called called the Golden Age of British Agriculture. All of this without government funding, discussion papers and policy documents, central planning or coordination.

    “Eighteenth and nineteenth century England subscribed to laissez faire. Taxes were minimal (there was no tax in peacetime, for example) and governments rarely intervened in the economy. There was no support for agricultural research and development. For a short time, the government did create a Board of Agriculture, but all that did was to sponsor between 1803 and 1813 an annual course of lectures by Humprey Davy on agricultural chemistry. So dwarfed was the Board by activities of the privately funded societies for agricultural research and development that in 1822 it was disbanded.” (52).

    For a summary of Kealey’s book: http://www.the-rathouse.com/2010/Kealey-EconomicsofScience.html

  • 4. Rafe  |  13 December 2010 at 10:43 pm

    A late thought, what stopped research in Agriculture after 1945, was it the atomic bomb or the publication of The Open Society and its Enemies?

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