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Preliminary Survey: Literature on Agricultural Research to 1945 November 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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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.

In these examples, problems of agriculture form a motivating context for contributions to biology, statistics, and other fields.  The history of agricultural research itself remains somewhat difficult to discern, even though it apparently constitutes a long, sizable tradition.  We do have some enumeration of accomplishments in research and technique, written in retrospect by practitioners.  For the case of the UK, the following resources are available:

  • A. Daniel Hall’s, Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: Essays on Research, Practice, and Organization (1939)
  • E. John Russell’s A History of Agricultural Science in Great Britain: 1620-1954 (1966)
  • G. W. Cooke’s Agricultural Research, 1931-1981 (UK Agricultural Research Council, 1981)
  • Kenneth Blaxter and Noel Robertson’s From Dearth to Plenty: The Modern Revolution in Food Production (1995)

Agricultural historian Paul Brassley has written, “Agricultural Research in Britain, 1850-1914: failure, success, and development,” Annals of Science 52 (1995): 465-480.

There is a significant literature on other countries’ agricultural science.  Margaret Rossiter, who is probably best known for her work on women in science, has had a long-term interest in the history of agricultural research in the United States; see especially her 1975 book The Emergence of Agricultural Science: Justus Liebig and the Americans, 1840-1880Paolo Palladino published Entomology, Ecology and Agriculture: The Making of Scientific Careers in North America, 1885-1985 in 1996.  Jonathan Harwood published Technology’s Dilemma: Agricultural Colleges between Practice and Science in Germany, 1860-1934 in 2005.

There is a very heavy emphasis in the literature on plant breeding, seemingly drawn toward the twin poles of the rise of genetics at the beginning of the 20th-century, and the rise of bio-engineering at its end.  The literature emphasizes two tensions: that between a Mendelian approach to hybridization and more ad hoc approaches, and that between the pressure to implement new hybrids and the persistent use of traditional breeds and suppliers.  In other words, there is (unsurprisingly) a central concern with the technocratic and techno-commercial possibilities to be found in genetics and the science of hybridization.

On the UK case, Palladino wrote several articles in the early-to-mid-’90s:

  • “The Political Economy of Applied Research: Plant Breeding in Great Britain, 1910-1940,” Minerva 28 (1990): 446-468.
  • “Between Craft and Science: Plant Breeding, Mendelian Genetics, and British Universities,” Technology and Culture 34 (1993): 300-323.
  • “Wizards and Devotees: On the Mendelian Theory of Inheritance and the Professionalization of Agricultural Science in Great Britain and the United States, 1880-1930,” History of Science 32 (1994): 409-444.
  • “Science, Technology, and the Economy: Plant Breeding in Great Britain, 1920-1970,” The Economic History Review 49 (1996): 116-136.  [This one has some particularly nice statistics on the sources of seeds for various British crops over the time period of the study]

The American case was popular in the latter half of the ’80s.  Barbara Kimmelman’s 1987 PhD dissertation was “A Progressive Era Discipline: Genetics at American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations, 1900–1920” (Penn; also see her published articles).  Sociologist Jack Kloppenburg published First the Seed: The Political Economy of Biotechnology, 1492-2000 in 1988.  Deborah Fitzgerald published The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890-1940 in 1990 (as well as Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture in 2003).

This literature has seen a renaissance in the past five years focusing beyond the UK and US.  Along with Harwood’s 2005 book on German agricultural science in general, Thomas Wieland has published “Wir beherrschen den pflanzlichen Organismus besser. . . “: Wissenschaftliche Pflanzenzüchtung in Deutschland 1889-1945 (2004). Historian of Nazi Germany Susanne Heim has published Plant Breeding and Agrarian Research in Kaiser-Wilhelm Institutes, 1933-1945: Calories, Caoutchouc, Careers (2008).  There is the collection edited by Christophe Bonneuil, Gilles Denis, and Jean-Luc Mayaud, Sciences, Chercheurs et Agriculture: Pour une histoire de la recherche agronomique (2008, which, incidentally, includes a contribution by my fellow Imperial postdoc, Delphine Berdah).

There is also a 2006 special issue of the Journal of the History of Biology on “Biology and Agriculture” with a short introduction by Harwood and pieces on links between genetics and plant breeding by Bonneuil on France, Wieland on Germany, a case study by Kimmelman for the US, as well as a piece on the introduction of hybrids into Mexico by Karin Matchett.  (To round it out, there’s also a piece by Lloyd Ackert on the non-genetics research of Sergeii Vinogradskii.)

The genetics-technocracy angle comes very explicitly to the fore in the most recent issue of Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, dedicated to “Autarky/Autarchy: Genetics, Food Production, and the Building of Fascism” which, along with Heim’s work, picks up on a long history of the contemplation and study of fascist modernity.  Bernd Gausemeier (of the MPI) and Harwood tackle Germany in separate articles; Bonneuil and Frédéric Thomas deal with Vichy France (focusing on the work of Emile Schriebaux, Charles Crépin, Jean Bustarret, and Félicien Boeuf); Tiago Saraiva looks at Italy and Portugal, while Lino Camprubí handles Spain.

All this new work suggests comparison with the UK case, which has a historiography anchored in the 1990s, and comes more out of an institutional-history tradition rather than the critical tradition surrounding a techno-idealism deriving from the science of hybridity, which is interesting given that some of the spade work was done by Robert Olby whose own work on genetics dates back to the 1960s.  He wrote “Scientists and Bureaucrats in the Establishment of the John Innes Horticultural Institute under William Bateson,” Annals of Science 46 (1989): 497-510; and the important political history, “Social Imperialism and State Support for Agricultural Research in Edwardian Britain,” Annals of Science 48 (1991): 509-526.  The latter details the 1909 foundation of the British government’s Development Commission, which partially funded the establishment of a number of research stations in the 1910s and 1920s.

The new research stations were centers for genetics research, premised in the notion that that work would aid in the development of a more grounded approach to agriculture.  Olby’s work here even seems to have been prompted by work he was doing on Bateson’s role in the establishment of Mendelian genetics in Britain; see also his “William Bateson’s Introduction of Mendelism to England: A Reassessment,” BJHS 20 (1987): 399-420; and “The Dimensions of Scientific Controversy: The Biometric-Mendelian Debate,” BJHS 22 (1988): 299-320.  However, even though Olby is coming from the intellectual history of genetics, he writes pretty straight-up political and institutional history.

(On the topic of Bateson’s pre-1910 work at Cambridge, I can also recommend, Marsha Richmond, “The ‘Domestication’ of Heredity: The Familial Organization of Geneticists at Cambridge University, 1895-1910,” Journal of the History of Biology 39 (2006): 565-605.  Bateson’s experimental farm in Grantchester near Cambridge was unusual in the number of women who worked there, including Bateson’s collaborator Edith Rebecca Saunders.)

Some further readings on institutions of British agricultural research:

  • David F. Smith, “The Agricultural Research Association, the Development Fund, and the Origins of the Rowett Research Institute,” Agricultural History Review 46 (1998): 47-63.
  • David F. Smith, “The Use of ‘Team Work’ in the Practical Management of Research in the Interwar Period: John Boyd Orr at the Rowett Research Institute,” Minerva 37 (1999): 259-280.
  • Timothy DeJager, “Pure Science and Practical Interests: The Origins of the Agricultural Research Council, 1930-1937,” Minerva 31 (1993): 129-150.

I have not yet come across any work by historians on the important Rothamsted Experimental Station (est. 1843; first director after the death of the founders was A. Daniel Hall, 1902-1912, followed by E. John Russell, 1912-1943, so much of the aforementioned early UK history of agricultural science was basically written by Rothamsted people — good to keep that in mind!)  Some more potted institutional histories also appear in some of Palladino’s aforementioned work.

Smith comes to the work on Orr and Rowett Research Institute from the perspective of the history of nutrition, which seems to fall within the history of medicine.  It looks to me as though there is a pretty substantial divide between the historians of medicine, who focus on nutrition, and historians of biology, who focus on breeding, even though the nutritionists appear to have been trained in biology and chemistry as much as medicine, and even though there does not seem to have been a huge divide between nutrition and genetics in agricultural research work itself, which dealt constantly with cross-cutting problems of agricultural yield and food quality.  I have not included the literature on the history of public nutrition here, and, at first glance, it does not seem to be tightly integrated into the agriculture historiography.

Policy history is a third area that, despite Olby’s political histories, seems detached from the science historiography except insofar as policy is taken to comprise a successful or unsuccessful dirigisme of scientific breeding — though I still have to hunt down copies of Palladino’s and Harwood’s books on the non-UK cases.  In the UK, we do know that university agriculture departments (of which there were a good number, and on which I have found very little) and research institutes (often semi-attached to universities) were also centers of agricultural advice.  On early history, see Colin J. Holmes, “Science and the Farmer: The Development of the Agricultural Advisory Service in England and Wales, 1900-1939,” Agricultural History Review 36 (1988): 77-86.  The National Agricultural Advisory Service was created in 1946, and it has its own institutional history, Neil F. McCann, The Story of the National Agricultural Advisory Service, A Mainspring of Agricultural Revival, 1946-1971 (1989).  (Today is it an independent consultancy.)  There is also a nice broad overview, The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (1962) by John Winnfrith, the ministry’s permanent secretary.  Obviously official histories are to be taken with due caution, but, then, so are critical histories.

It is not clear to me that the relationship between research and advice, state regulation, market action, and the choices of individual farmers is well worked out, nor is it clear to me that these histories have been given their proper independence from each other given interest in locating the inevitable tensions between them.  A follow-up post will attempt to consolidate some gains in the UK case.

Addendum, 23 November 2010

One ought not to forget the work of one’s supervisor (who has been of great help with this survey), see especially: Abigail Woods, “The Farm as Clinic: Veterinary Expertise and the Transformation of Dairy Farming, 1930-1950,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38 (2007): 462-487; that contains a reference to Keith Vernon, “Science for the Farmer? Agricultural Research in England, 1909-36,” Twentieth Century British History 8 (1997): 310-333.  Also, Berris Charnley is just now finishing up a PhD on agricultural science and Mendelian genetics at Leeds.

Addendum, 8 January 2011

See also bibliographies on plant breeding on this page at the MPIWG.


1. Charles Day - November 19, 2010

Efficiency — presumably a goal of agricultural research — can be defined in different ways.

By one measure (crop value per hectare), Japanese farmers are probably the most efficient. By another (production cost per hectare), Brazilians probably come out top.

Other efficiency goals could be minimizing pesticide use, maximizing growing season use, and, in the case of WWII Britain, maximizing home-grown nutrition.

I mention efficiencies in case the question, Just what were they trying to achieve?, helps frame your investigations.

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