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Reprinted from the Obittiary Notices of the Royal Society of London.


The manor-house of Rothamsted, situated in the parish of Har-
penden, Herts, was the birthplace of John Bennet Lawes, and the
Rothamsted farm became, in subsequent years, the scene of the great
work of his long life. So far-reaching have been the results which he
achieved, that the name of Rothamsted is now a household word
wherever the science of Agriculture is studied.

The ancestors of Sir John Lawes had occupied Rothamsted for
many generations. Jaques Wittewronge came to England from
Flanders in 1564, owing to the religious persecution then prevailing.
The manor of Rothamsted was purchased in 1623 for his grandson,
John Wittewronge, who was then a minor. John Wittewronge
was knighted by Charles I, and afterwards created a baronet
by Charles II. In consequence of the failure of male heirs, the
manor passed to the Bennet family by the marriage of Elizabeth
Wittewronge with Thomas Bennet, and finally to the Lawes family
by the marriage of Mary Bennet (great-granddaughter of James
Wittewronge) with Thomas Lawes. His son, John Bennet Lawes, was
the father of the John Bennet Lawes of whom we have to speak, who
was born at Rothamsted on December 28, 1814.

John Bennet Lawes was an only son. He lost his father when
eight years old, and owed much to his mother's bringing up. He
seems to have led the life of a country boy, and his studies he after-
wards described as being " of a most desultory character." Experi-
ments in chemistry, made at home, seem to have been one of his
favourite occupations. He was sent successively to Eton, and to
Brasenose College, Oxford, which he entered in 1832. While at
Oxford he attended some of the lectures of Dr. Daubeny, the professor
of chemistry. He left the University without taking a degree.

In 1834 Mr. Lawes entered on the personal management of the
home farm at Rothamsted, then of about 250 acres ; he at the same
time threw himself heartily into chemical investigations. He tells us :
" At the age of twenty I gave an order to a London firm to fit up a
complete laboratory, and I am afraid it sadly disturbed the peace of
mind of my mother to see one of the best bedrooms in the house fitted
up with stoves, retorts, and all the apparatus and reagerius necessary
for chemical research. At the time my attention was very much
directed to the composition of drugs ; I almost knew liie Pharma-
copeia by heart, and I was not satisfied until I had made the acquaint-
ance of the author. Dr. A. T. Thomson. The active principle of a


.nuinflic ; ;':nf sti-l,v,,i i, ,^ yraa being discovered at this time, and, in order
to make 'these 1 !si.ibfcrice.s,' I sowed on my farm poppies, hemlock,
henbane, colchicum, belladonna, &c. Some of these are still growing
about the place. Dr. Thomson had suggested a process for making
calomel and corrosive sublimate by burning quicksilver in chlorine gas.
I undertook to carry out the process on a large scale, and wasted a good
deal of time and money on a process which was, in fact, no improve-
ment on the process then in use."* At this time Dr. Anthony Todd
Thomson, Professor of Materia Medica at University College, London,
was his chief instructor and adviser. An old barn at Rothamsted was
transformed into a laboratory, and here the calomel was afterwards
made; this laboratory remained in active use till 1855.

The researches of De Saussure, on the nutrition of plants, seem to
have first called Mr. Lawes' attention to the relations between chemistry
and agriculture. In 1837 he commenced experiments in pots with
agricultural plants, the manures made use of supplying various elements
of plant food. These experiments were continued on a larger scale in
1838 and 1839. Spent animal charcoal was then a waste product, and
Mr. Lawes was asked by a London friend if it could be turned to any
use. He therefore employed it as a manure in his pot experiments,
and discovered that if previously treated with sulphuric acid its
efficacy as a manure was greatly increased. Apatite and other mineral
phosphates were soon treated in a similar manner, and the " super-
phosphate of lime," thus prepared, was found to be most effective as a
manure, especially for turnips. The new superphosphate was employed
on a large scale for crops on the Rothamsted farm in 1840 and 1841,
and the results were so satisfactory that in 1842 Mr. Lawes took out a
patent for the manufacture of superphosphate.

The application of sulphuric acid to bones had been practised before
the date of Mr. Lawes' patent ; the novelty of his patented invention
consisted in the treatment of mineral phosphates in this manner. The
supply of bone available for farmers is but small, but the supply of
apatite, coprolite, and of the various rock phosphates discovered in
recent years, is almost unlimited. These mineral phosphates are
usually too insoluble to have any practical value as manure, but by
treatment with a limited quantity of sulphuric acid,, a mixture of
monocalcic phosphate, phosphoric acid, and gypsum is produced. The
phosphates in this compound are almost entirely soluble in water, and
far more efficacious as manure than the phosphates of raw bone. The
enormous influence which the introduction of superphosphate has had
on the development of agriculture may be gathered from the quantity
now annually employed by farmers. The annual manufacture of

* " Agricultural Gazette," January 2, 1888.

superphosphate in Great Britain amounts at present to about
1,000,000 tons, while the total manufacture in the world is about six
times this amount. If Sir John Lawes had done nothing more than
introduce the manufacture of artificial manures, he would still rank
among the greatest benefactors to agriculture.

The life of Sir John Lawes divides at this point into two parts.
He became from the date of his patent a chemical manufacturer,
carrying on an extensive London business, and as prosperity increased
he embarked in a variety of enterprises. While, however, obliged to
spend two days of every week in London, his devotion to agricultural
research continued to increase, and the profits yielded by commerce
were employed for the creation and maintenance of a large experiment
station at Kothamsted. The experiments in the fields had already, at
the date of his patent, reached a stage at which the continuous services
of a trained chemist were urgently needed. On the recommendation
of Dr. A. T. Thomson, Mr. Lawes engaged a young chemist who had
studied under Liebig Dr. J. H. Gilbert. Dr. Gilbert entered upon
his work at Rothamsted in June, 1843, and continued actively occupied
in the scientific superintendence of the agricultural experiments during
the whole of his long life. For fifty-seven years Lawes and Gilbert
worked together on a great variety of agricultural problems ; of these
labours and their results we shall give a brief account after completing
our sketch of the life of each worker.

Mr. Lawes married, in 1842, Caroline Fountaine, daughter of
Andrew Fountaine, Esq., of Narford Hall, Norfolk. He enjoyed her
society for more than fifty years, and her artistic power was not
unfrequently employed in providing illustrations of the investigations
in progress. As the commencement of manufacturing operations made
great demands on his capital, Mr. Lawes at this period let Rothamsted
House, and for some years resided either in London or Devonshire.

His first factory for the manufacture of superphosphate was erected at
Deptford Creek in 1843. The business rapidly extended, and in 1857
about 100 acres of land were purchased at Barking Creek, and a larger
factory erected, including an extensive plant for the manufacture of sul-
phuric acid. In 1866 Mr. Lawes purchased the tartaric and citric acid
factory at Millwall. The purchase was unwillingly made, but the new
work was taken up with his accustomed energy and enterprise, many
economies and improvements were introduced, and the factory became
the most important of its kind in this country. In 1872 he sold the
whole of his manure business for 300,000 ; he retained the tartaric
and citric acid factory till his death. Mr. Lawes had also a large
sugar estate in Queensland : the low price of sugar and the lack of
cheap labour prevented, in this instance, a commercial success.

The investigations at Rothamsted made rapid progress. In 1843


were commenced the systematic field experiments on turnips and
wheat; the wheat field has grown wheat without intermission ever
since. In 1847 the field experiments on beans commenced, and in
1848 those on clover, and on a four-course rotation. In 1851 the
rotations of wheat and fallow, and wheat and beans were started. In
1852 the field experiments on barley commenced. In 1856 those on
grass land. In all about 40 acres were brought under experiment. Of
all these crops complete chemical statistics were obtained. Experiments
on sheep-feeding with various foods commenced in 1848. The whole
bodies of ten animals oxen, sheep, and pigs of various ages and
conditions as to fatness, were analysed between 1848 and 1850. In
1850 an extensive series of pig-feeding experiments was made.

The extent of the work undertaken, its thoroughness, and the
practical value of the results obtained, gained the admiration of both
scientific and practical men. At a meeting of Hertfordshire farmers
at St. Albans, on December 24, 1853, it was resolved to present
Mr. Lawes with a testimonial. The circular issued states : "It was
considered that Mr. Lawes has for many years been engaged in a series
of scientific and disinterested investigations for the improvement of
agriculture generally, which have been carried out to an extent, with
an attention to accuracy and detail, and at a cost, never before under-
taken by any individual, or even by any public institution." The
proposal was soon enlarged, and became national in its character. The
subscriptions received amounted to about ,1,160. At Mr. Lawes'
desire, the greater part of this sum was spent in the erection of a new
laboratory, which was opened at a gathering of distinguished agricul-
turists on July 19, 1855, the Earl of Chichester presiding on the
occasion. The speeches made by Mr. Lawes, Dr. Gilbert, and others,
have fortunately been preserved.* Mr. Lawes, on this occasion, paid
a warm tribute to the work done by Dr. Gilbert. Besides the gift
of the laboratory, Mr. Lawes received a handsome silver candelabrum,
bearing a suitable inscription. In later years the laboratory was found
too small for the preparation and storage of the numerous samples, and
additional buildings were erected.

Mr. Lawes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1854, and
in 1867 one of the Royal medals was awarded to him and Dr. Gilbert
for their systematic researches upon agricultural chemistry. Seven
papers by Lawes and Gilbert have been published in the Society's
Philosophical Transactions.

The connection of Mr. Lawes with the Royal Agricultural
Society was naturally a close one. He became a member of the

* Herts Guardian, July 28, 18r>5. Also Gardeners Chronicle and Agricultural
Gazette, July 15, 1871, p. 918.

Council in 1848, and was afterwards a vice-president and trustee. In
1893 the presidency of the Society was offered to him, but declined on
account of his advancing years. In the Journal of the Society the
greater number of the reports on the Rothamsted agricultural investi-
gations have been published ; forty-six reports had thus appeared before
the year 1900. In 1876 he took an active part in arranging for the
commencement of the field experiments conducted by the Society at
Woburn, in Bedfordshire. These experiments consisted in repetitions
of the experiments at Kothamsted upon the continuous growth of
wheat and barley with known manures, the experiments, in this case,
being made upon a purely sandy soil; they also included rotation
experiments designed to test the manurial value of cattle foods. These
expeiiments were conducted on the Duke of Bedford's estate, and at his

The relations of Mr. Lawes with the Chemical Society were also
intimate. He became a Fellow in 1850, and was elected to the
Council in 1862. The chief part of the chemical work done in the
Rothamsted laboratory was communicated to this Society, and about
twenty-two lectures and papers by Lawes and Gilbert, and other Roth-
amsted workers, appear in the Journal and Transactions.

Mr. Lawes was a member of the Royal Commission appointed in
1857 "To inquire into the best mode of distributing the sewage of
towns, and applying it to beneficial and profitable uses." Two members
of this Commission, Lawes and Way, conducted for several years im-
portant experiments on sewage irrigation at Rugby. The investigation
dealt with the quantity and composition of the grass receiving vary-
ing amounts of sewage, and its value as food for fattening oxen and
milking cows, including the composition of the milk obtained. The
effluent waters from the irrigated fields were also analysed, and the
formation of nitrates in large quantities was demonstrated. The final
report was published in 1865.

The aid of Rothamsted was again sought by the Government in
1863, the object in this case being to ascertain whether the malting
of barley resulted in any increase of its value as a food. A consider-
able bulk of barley was divided into two lots, one of which was
malted, and the loss in dry matter ascertained ; feeding experiments
were then made, in which the nutritive effect of a given weight of
barley was compared with that shown by the quantity of malt which
could have been produced from it. The trials with oxen, sheep, and
pigs, were made at Rothamsted, and those with milking cows at Rugby.
The full report was presented to Parliament in 1866.

While the formal reports on the Rothamsted investigations were to
a large extent the work of Dr. Gilbert, Mr. Lawes was himself an active
writer on agricultural subjects. In middle life he was a frequent con-

tributor of short papers to agricultural newspapers and periodicals,
both English and American ; he also lectured from time to time to
agricultural associations. His writings were always marked by great
originality, they were also very practical in character. When bringing
forward the results of recent scientific inquiries, he would avoid as far as
possible the use of scientific language, and speak as a farmer to farmers.
The fertility of the land and its relation to landlord and tenant, and
the manure value of foods, with the compensation due to an outgoing
tenant for unexhausted manures, were subjects which he made
peculiarly his own. For many years he sent annually to the Times
newspaper, in the early autumn, an estimate of the quantity of wheat
yielded by the preceding harvest in this country. This estimate was
based on the produce of the standard plots in the experimental wheat
field at Rothamsted ; as the produce here was over or under the aver-
age, so it was assumed would be the general produce of the country.
The estimates thus made proved generally to be near the truth.

For his great services to agriculture Mr. Lawes was created a baronet
by the Queen in 1882. The degree of LL.D. was conferred on him
by the University of Edinburgh in 1877 ; D.C.L. by Oxford in 1893;
and Sc.D. by Cambridge in 1894. He received the Legion of Honour
from Napoleon III. ; he was also a Chevalier du Merite Agricole. He
was elected a corresponding member of the Institute of France in 1879.
In 1863, he received a Gold Medal from the Russian Government. In
1881, the German Emperor awarded a Gold Medal for Agricultural
Merit to Lawes and Gilbert.

Sir John Lawes early conceived the idea of perpetuating the
Rothamsted investigations by placing the laboratory and fields in the
hands of trustees with a permanent endowment for their maintenance.
He first spoke of this in his speech at the opening of the new laboratory
in 1855. In 1872 he publicly announced that he had set aside 100,000
for this purpose. By deeds executed by him in February, 1889, the
laboratory and experimental fields were leased to Sir John Lubbock,
William Wells, Esquire, and Sir John Evans, as trustees, for 99 years at
a peppercorn rent. To the same trustees he covenanted to pay the
sum of 100,000, the interest on which was to be applied to the
maintenance of agricultural investigations under the direction of a
Committee of nine persons, of whom four were to be nominated by the
Eoyal Society, two by the Royal Agricultural Society, one by the
Linnean Society, and one by the Chemical Society, the owner of
Rothamsted being always a member of the Committee. The appoint-
ment of new trustees when required was vested in the Royal Society.
The Managing Committee were at once appointed. They consisted of
Sir John Evans, Dr. Hugo Miiller, Sir Michael Foster, and Sir W. T.
Thiselton Dyer, nominated by the Royal Society ; Sir John H. Thorold,

and Charles Whitehead, Esq., nominated by the Royal Agricultural
Society ; William Carrathers, Esq., nominated by the Linneaii Society ;
Prof. H. E. Armstrong, nominated by the Chemical Society ; with Sir
John Bennet Lawes. Under this Committee, with but few alterations
in their constitution, the direction of the work at Rothamsted has since
proceeded. One provision of the trust deed directs the Committee to
send a lecturer from time to time to the United States of America to
lecture upon the results of the Rothamsted investigations.

The Jubilee of the Rothamsted Experiments was celebrated on
July 29, 1893. The organisation of this celebration originated with the
Royal Agricultural Society. At a meeting on March 1, presided over
by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, it was resolved : " That some public
recognition should be made of the invaluable services rendered to
Agriculture by Sir John Lawes and Dr. Gilbert." A subscription list
was opened, and with the contributions received a large boulder of
Shap granite was erected in front of the laboratory, bearing the
following 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." A large and distinguished gathering
was held in front of the laboratory on the afternoon of July 29, the
Rt. Hon. Herbert Gardner, M.P., President of the Board of Agriculture,
presided. The Duke of Westminster, as President of the Royal
Agricultural Society, presented to Sir John Lawes his portrait, painted
by H. Herkomer, R.A., and to Dr. J. H. Gilbert, a silver salver. He
also presented congratulatory addresses to both Lawes and Gilbert
from the subscribers to the fund, each address being signed by H.R.H.
the Prince of Wales. The presentation of a laige number of addresses
from English and Foreign Societies then followed, including one from
the Royal Society. Sir John Lawes and Dr. Gilbert then replied.*
A few of the words spoken by Sir John Lawes must be quoted. " That
aftemoon he had to return thanks to that distinguished and brilliant
assembly for their kind congratulations to himself and Dr. Gilbert
upon the work that they had been carrying on for the last 50 years.
When two people were joined together in marriage they could not
part, because they were bound together by very solemn ties. But
with regard to himself and Dr. Gilbert the case was quite different,
Dr. Gilbert could have left him, or he could have left Dr. Gilbert.
Their connection, however, had lasted for more than 50 years. What
was the cause 1 Nothing less than mutual love of the work they had
been engaged in. He (Sir John) had delighted in the work from the

* The whole of the addresses and speeches will be found in the Keport of the
Jubilee Commemoration, published by the Royal Agricultural Society.


beginning. All the time he could spare in the midst of many other
responsibilities and duties he had given to the work. But with
Dr. Gilbert it had been the work of his life. If it had not been for
Dr. Gilbert's collaboration their investigations would have been in a
very different state to what they were then."

Shortly after the Jubilee celebration Dr. Gilbert received the honour of
Knighthood. In September of the same year the Liebig Silver Medal
was awarded to Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert by the curators
of the Liebig Foundation of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences.
In the following year, 1894, the Albert Gold Medal of the Society of
Arts was presented to Lawes and Gilbert by H.RH. the Prince of
Wales, " for their joint services to scientific agriculture, and notably
for the researches which, throughout a period of fifty years, have been
carried on by them at the Experimental Farm, Rothamsted."

Something must now be said as to the personality of the remark-
able man whose life's work we have attempted to describe. He
possessed an extremely vigorous constitution, and when past 85,
exhibited but few of the infirmities of old age. His holiday was
always spent in Scotland, and deer stalking and salmon fishing were
then his chief occupations. At home, all his leisure time was spent
on the farm. He was a keen observer, and knew the experimental
fields better than anyone else. His interest in agricultural problems
never tired, he was continually finding fresh subjects for inquiry.
While gifted with a full share of the scientific imagination, he was
thoroughly practical in his conclusions. His long experience as a
farmer, and the careful attention to economy learnt in business, were
of great use to him when he brought the results of scientific investi-
gation before the agricultural world. He took a broad, statesman-like
view of all agricultural questions, and was looked up to by the
English farmer as his safest guide and his highest authority.

Sir John Lawes seldom took part in public functions, he was not
seen at meetings of scientific societies, and took no active part in
politics ; excepting the hours unavoidably spent on his London
business, he lived as far as possible a country life. It was, however,
in no sense a secluded life ; his correspondence was very large, and the
visitors to the Rothamsted experiments were extremely numerous and
of 'all nationalities. They found at Rothamsted a genial host and a
ready guide to the fields, where the lessons taught by the experimental
crops were described in brief and pithy sentences by one who knew
thoroughly the whole history of each plot.

Sir John Lawes by no means confined his attention to science,
agriculture, and business ; he was a man of active benevolence. The
agricultural labourers of Harpenden found in him their best friend. He
began to provide allotment gardens in 1852, and before his death the


number had reached 334. In 1857 he built a club room in the gardens.
Various co-operative schemes were started for the labourers' benefit;
one of these has been immortalised by Charles Dickens, who visited
the club room in April, 1859, and afterwards gave an account of what
he saw in the first number of " All the Year Eound." The welfare of
his workmen at his various factories was equally considered. He
exercised a wide private benevolence, and in his own parish was never
appealed to in vain for any good work.

Sir John Lawes' life was prolonged to an unusual period ; he lived
and worked and taught through two successive generations. His health
remained very good till within about a week of his death. He died at
Rothamsted on August 31, 1900, in his 86th year, and was buried at
Harpenden. His only son, Sir Charles Bennet Lawes, who has
assumed the additional name of Wittewronge, succeeds to the
Rothamsted estate.*

E, W.


Joseph Henry Gilbert was bom at Hull on August 1, 1817. He
was the second son of the Rev. Joseph Gilbert, a Congregational
Minister, who had previously held the position of Professor of Classics
at the Divinity College, Rotherham. His mother belonged to a well-
known literary family, and under her maiden name of Ann Taylor, was
a popular authoress of poems for children. The family removed in
1825 to Nottingham, and it was here that the boyhood of Joseph
Henry Gilbert was spent. He was first sent to an elementary school
taught by a blind lady of great intelligence, and afterwards to a school

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Online LibraryRoyal Society (Great Britain)The founders of the Rothamsted agricultural station. A sketch of the life and work of Sir John Bennet Lawes, bart ... and Sir J. Henry Gil bert .. → online text (page 1 of 3)