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Sketch: UK Agricultural Research and Education January 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901)

It is difficult to trace the lineage of agricultural research in Britain without the bottom falling out from underneath your feet, putting you in freefall until you land with a thud in the eighteenth century.  Since this is well outside the scope of my project, I will just note a few reference points before scrambling back toward the twentieth century: the growth of experimental farming by “improvement”-minded landowners (good ol’ Turnip Townshend and co.), the 1791 foundation of the Veterinary College of London (later the Royal Veterinary College), and the 1796 foundation of the Sibthorpian Chair of Rural Economy at Oxford through the benefaction of John Sibthorp (1758-1796), who was Sherrardian Professor of Botany there from 1784 until his death (having replaced his father, Humphrey, who held the post from 1747 to 1783).

A Board of Agriculture existed in England from 1793 until it was wound up in 1820.  The Royal Agricultural Society of England was founded in 1838, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was founded in 1844.  For reference, the Board of Longitude was wound up in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820, the British Medical Association was founded in 1832, and the Chemical Society of London was founded in 1841.

Some 19th-Century Developments

It is within the context of these developments that the 1843 foundation of the Rothamsted Experimental Station by the landowner John Bennet Lawes (1814-1900) makes the most sense.  Lawes hired the chemist Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901) who had worked with Justus Liebig (1803-1873) at Giessen to direct the station’s experimental program, which continued under their joint leadership until their deaths.  Rothamsted spans the eighteenth-century tradition of experimental farming and the twentieth-century tradition of agricultural research station.

The Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester was founded in 1845.  The 1890s saw the foundation of a variety of agricultural education departments in universities.  A Department of Agriculture was founded at the College of Science (from 1904 the Armstrong College of Science) at Durham near Newcastle in 1891; the nearby Cockle Park experimental farm was established in 1896. An agriculture department was established at Nottingham in 1892; it closed in 1900, but the nearby Midland Dairy Institute was established in 1895, and in 1905 it became the Midland Agricultural and Dairy College.  A. Daniel Hall established the Agricultural College of Wye in 1894.  Departments of agriculture were established at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth (1893), University College Reading (1893), and Cambridge (1899).  Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire was established in 1901.

The late 19th century was a time of agricultural depression in England, but there was also international competition to think about, which is covered in Margaret Rossiter’s very good The Emergence of Agricultural Science: Justus Liebig and the Americans, 1840-1880 (1975), which has an excellent balance of intellectual and institutional history.  However, also see the intricately detailed institutional survey, A History of Agricultural Education in the United States, 1785-1925 (1929) by Alfred Charles True.  For a reference point, the Morrill Act leading to the establishment of the Land-Grant universities was signed in 1862.  On the German case, see Jonathan Harwood’s Technology’s Dilemma: Agricultural Colleges between Science and Practice in Germany, 1860-1934 (2005).  Probably the key point of comparison here is the establishment of an agricultural institute at the University of Halle in 1862, with other German universities following suit in the later 1860s, the 1870s, and after.

The Proliferation of Research Stations

The twentieth century saw a major proliferation of experimental stations in the UK.  When Lawes and Gilbert died circa 1900, Daniel Hall (1864-1942) took over, followed by John Russell (1872-1965).  Daniel Hall left Rothamsted to become an influential member of the Development Commission, which was founded in 1909 through the Development and Road Improvement Act.  It significantly expedited the foundation of new stations, which was also aided through private philanthropy.

A Board of Agriculture was re-established in 1889.  The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries was established from it in 1919, and it ran some practically-oriented research facilities.  When the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) was established in 1931, it began to fund research programs, though this support increased substantially after World War II.  In that period, it began to sponsor research “units” at universities, which were often long-term endeavors, but were not in principle permanent.  The literature on British agricultural research institutions emphasizes the wrangling between the Ministry and the ARC over control over the direction of sponsored research (the ARC typically urging more scholarly research programs).

Here are the foundation dates of some research institutions.  I have chopped off some university-affiliated research institutes and units, but have left others.  The number of these research institutes has been surprising to me.

1876: The Woburn Experimental Station

1896: Cockle Park Experimental Farm at Newcastle

1902: The Marine Biological Sub-Station at Lowestoft

1903: National Fruit and Cider Institute at Long Ashton

1908: Norfolk Agricultural Station

1910: John Innes Horticultural Institution (JIHI)

1911: Research Institute in Plant Physiology at Imperial College, London

1911: Institute for Animal Nutrition at Cambridge

1912: Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge

1912: Research Institute in Dairying at Reading

1913: (Rowett) Institute for Animal Nutrition at Aberdeen

1913: East Malling Fruit Research Station at Wye

1914: Cheshunt Experimental Station at Turners Hill

1914: Food Science Laboratory at Norwich

1914: Institute for Plant Pathology at Kew (moved to Harpenden)

1916: Official Seed Testing Station (folded in 1921)

1917: Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge

1918: Fisheries Experiment Station at Conway

1918: Chipping Campden Station for Fruit and Vegetable Preservation

1919: Welsh Plant Breeding Station at Aberystwyth

1919: National Institute for Agricultural Botany in Cambridge.

1920: Animal Disease Research Association (Moredun Institute)

1920: Imperial Bureau of Mycology at Kew

1921: Scottish Plant Breeding Station at Corstorphine

1922: DSIR Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge

1924: Institute of Agricultural Engineering at Oxford

1924: Pirbright Experimental Station (built at site of a cattle testing station)

1927: Potato Virus Research Station at Cambridge

1927: Dartington Hall Laboratory

1928: DSIR Ditton Laboratory at East Malling

1928: ICI Agricultural Research Station, Jealott’s Hill

1928: Hannah Dairy Research Institute

1929: DSIR Torry Research Station at Aberdeen (fisheries)

1930: Macaulay Institute of Soil Research at Aberdeen

1937: ARC Field Station at Compton

1940: DSIR Pest Infestation Laboratory at Slough

1940: Grassland Improvement Station at Drayton (folded in 1955)

1940s [?]: Infestation Control Laboratory at Tolworth

1946: Scottish Machinery Testing Station

1947: Poultry Research Station at Houghton

1949: Grasslands Research Institute at Hurley

1949: National Vegetable Research Station at Wellesbourne

1951: Scottish Horticultural Research Institute at Invergowrie

1952: Humber Laboratory at Hull (Torry Research Station)

1953: Burnham-on-Crouch Laboratory (fisheries)

1953*: Glasshouse Crops Research Institute at Littlehampton

1954: Hill Farming Research Organisation at Edinburgh

1957: (Letcombe) Radiobiological Laboratory at Wantage

1958: Infestation Control Laboratory at Worplesdon

1959: Broom’s Barn Experimental Station (Rothamsted)

1960: Weed Research Organisation at Oxford

1967†: Meat Research Institute at Langford

1967†: Food Research Institute at Colney

1969: Weymouth Laboratory (fisheries)

*Established following closure of Cheshunt Experimental Station

†Established following closure of Low Temperature Research Station

Below is some further institutions for which I have not yet found establishment dates; it is still difficult for me to tell exactly what the status was and went on at the chain of experimental husbandry farms.

A series of Experimental Husbandry Farms and Experiment Horticulture Stations were set up by the National Agricultural Advisory Service (est. 1946) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries as a sort of intermediary between research centers and farms were results might be implemented.  The main idea was to test new techniques in local conditions.  I will not list these in this post.  I have found some of the other stations listed in this space to have belonged to smaller educational institutions.  I will try and cover agricultural education and university-based ARC “units” in another post.  Good coverage of the latter (and indeed, excellent background information in general) is to be found in the official ARC history Agricultural Research, 1931-1981 edited by G. W. Cooke.

Research at Cambridge

Finally, having researched physics for so long, I have always thought of Cambridge in terms of the mathematical tripos and the Cavendish Laboratory.  However, the growth of agriculture-and-nutrition-related biology at Cambridge, coming out of the natural sciences tripos, is pretty astounding as well.  Here is a sketch of that growth:

1893: Department of Botany founded (though Cambridge had had professors of botany for some time)

1899: Department of Agriculture/Draper Chair* of Agriculture established

*The Draper chair was filled by William Somerville and T. H. Middleton (who both left for the Board of Agriculture) before being held from 1907 to 1929 by T. B. Wood.

1908: Chair established in Agricultural Botany; it is held by Rowland Biffen from 1908 to 1931.

1911: Institute for Animal Nutrition

–Having worked in evolutionary morphology at Cambridge, William Bateson built a research program in genetics mainly out of his home in nearby Grantchester (see Marsha Richmond’s article, cited here).  Bateson left in 1910 to become first director of JIHI.

1912: Arthur Balfour chair in Genetics established; it is held by Reginald Punnett until 1940.

1912: Plant Breeding Institute established; it is directed by Biffen until 1936.

1919: National Institute for Agricultural Botany established in Cambridge.

1921: Molteno Institute for Parasitology established under George Henry Falkiner Nuttall

1922: Low Temperature Research Station established (this was a DSIR lab located in Cambridge)

1923: Institute of Animal Pathology

1923: Horticultural Research Station

1924: Dunn Institute of Biochemistry established* for Frederick Gowland Hopkins

*See Robert E. Kohler, “Walter Fletcher, F. G. Hopkins, and the Dunn Institute of Biochemistry: A Case Study in the Patronage of Science,” Isis 69 (1978): 330-355, for much further detail.

1927: Dunn Nutritional Laboratory established

1927: Potato Virus Research Station founded under Redcliffe Salaman

1932: Animal Research Station established (becomes the ARC Unit of Animal Reproduction after World War II)

1941: ARC Unit of Animal Physiology established under Joseph Barcroft; becomes the Institute of Animal Physiology in 1948.

1944: The ARC Unit of Insect Physiology, founded in 1942 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, moves to Cambridge with its founder Vincent Brian Wigglesworth.

1947: ARC Unit of Plant Biochemistry under Charles Hanes (disbanded in 1951)

1951: ARC Unit of Soil Physics under E. C. Childs

1956: ARC Statistical Service under R. C. Campbell

1969: ARC Unit of Developmental Botany under P. W. Brian

Update: See also this blog’s list of UK Agricultural Colleges



1. William Burns - January 12, 2011

Ah Wigglesworth…! I seem to remember he (or rather one of his books) is still taught in the insect physiology component of the biology degree at Imperial (or at least was when I took it not so long ago in the late 1990s). By the way, are you planning blog entries on the agric. discussion group’s work at some stage?

2. Will Thomas - January 12, 2011

I think the group could use a project of some kind to help focus our discussions, and EWP might not be a bad outlet for that. I was actually planning on talking about Cambridge some more in tomorrow’s session, since Andy M. said he’d be there, and I think it might tie into the One Medicine project.

I’ve been out at Kew the last couple of days, so I’ve managed to get a handle on some of the experimental husbandry stuff, which it turns out was run by the MAF’s National Agricultural Advisory Service. I’ll probably be making some corrections to this post before long.

Oh, also, a lot of experimental stations have been shut down over the last few decades. I just found a site where some former members are assembling some history of their own here; they have some great photo albums of life at the stations in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a great example of what David E. calls “historiography from below”. Their ARC Institutes page is especially worth a look.

For everyone else: William B. is one our PhD students here at Imperial, and it was his suggestion that we put together an agriculture study group. Nobody at Imperial is really an expert on this stuff (except for Abigail Woods who is an expert on veterinary history), so it’s essentially a chance for us to try and get our heads around the topic.

3. Weekly Roundup | The Bubble Chamber - January 14, 2011

[…] of science Will Thomas writes a sketch of the history of agricultural research and education in the UK on Ether Wave […]

4. Will Thomas - January 19, 2011

I have updated this post significantly, correcting some errors and misleading points. I also have taken out references to the experimental husbandry farms for reasons stated. I think it’s still pretty idiosyncratic, and will probably put together a website at some point that explains things a bit better.

5. Berris Charnley - January 27, 2011

Hi Will,

Many thanks for another great blog on this topic. I’m a big fan of the whole EWP project, and tickled pink that you’ve moved in this direction. Can’t wait for the next installment.

All the best,

6. Will Thomas - January 28, 2011

Berris, I’m pleased to see you’re a reader! We’ll have to get you in to London at some point to talk to our agriculture working group to explain some of the contours of the recent genetics-agriculture literature, which seems to be hitting a very international stride.

I’ve very quickly run through some of your talks from the ipbio website. I’m very interested in the Biffen-Wood organization at Cambridge, which you look at, since it seems to be not only a source of genetics work in Britain, but of agricultural biology more generally.

Incidentally, you don’t happen to know when the Department of Agriculture became the School of Agriculture, do you? Or am I wrong in thinking it was a department in the first place? Or is it just one of those things where under the Cambridge system they’re really synonymous?

7. Berris Charnley - January 28, 2011

Hi Will,

Biffen and Wood were quite a team, they seem to have had a finger in almost every aspect of British agricultural research in the 30 odd years they worked together. As you’ve seen, there was a great deal of porosity between the agricultural department at Cambridge, and Whitehall. This revolving door policy intensified during the War and continued at a heightened pitch afterwards. When Hall replaced Bateson at the John Innes, Wood did a stint in Hall’s role as head of the Development Commission; Biffen and Bateson provided scientific advice to the DC through an advisory committee, Middleton handled the negotiations for the Ministry of Agriculture with the DC over NIAB. The list goes on… My impression is that these links diminish somewhat in the 1930s with the ARC reshuffle, but that there are important legacies; most notably F.L. Engledow’s continued presence in the DC and Min. Ag. One also shouldn’t forget Cambridge University Colleges were, and still are, some of the biggest land owners in the country. Donald Opitz has some nice work in press on the Cambridge ‘aristocratic machine’ and its support for agricultural research at the University.

The department officially became a school in December 1910. The story (from Wood) is that the King spotted Biffen’s wheat at an RAS show in 1906. The King was staying with the Duke of Devonshire at the time. Either on his own initiative, or perhaps promoted by the King, the Duke set up a committee at Cambridge University to raise funds to expand the department. The Drapers’ Society put up a big chunk of the £20,000 they wanted, the rest of the money came from private subscriptions and small grants. The department moved into new purpose-built accommodation and switched farms to a larger site, leased from Trinity College. Apparently, there was quite a party; Cambridge University’s archives have copies of the invitations, floor plans etc. in three guard books which have reporter cuttings and committee notes for the Agriculture Department and Forestry Department from 1894 onwards.

I’d love to come and join the discussions in London at some point; let me know when you meet. I’m no expert on the international picture but I would love to come and throw around some ideas. It’s certainly the right time to start pulling together the great work that’s already out there at a national level.

All the best,


8. Will Thomas - January 28, 2011

Excellent! I was literally just updating my prior comment saying never-mind on the date, since I just ran across a Nature article on the 1910 opening of the school, when you replied.

Our agriculture group meets every other Thursday at 10am; we’re having a meeting next week, where we will be discussing Mary Morgan’s working paper on the relationship between experimental farming and David Ricardo’s theory of distribution, as well as an economic history piece from Industrializing Organisms. I’ll make sure you get our emails, and just let us know when you plan on popping by, and we can distribute something of yours to read ahead of time, if you like.

9. Berris Charnley - January 28, 2011

I have some catching up to do then. Will be in touch soon.

10. Tim Johnson - August 4, 2011

I came across this discussion purely by accident and am fascinated by it all. In 2009 I published ‘Agricultural Education in Yorkshire 1891 to 1970’which covers some of your interests. Do not forget the County Farm Institutes and their roles in advisory work until the ADAS birth in 1946

11. Will Thomas - August 5, 2011

Tim, thanks very much for the reference — that will be very useful! You’re quite right to point out the importance of the county farm institutes and agricultural colleges. At present I’m not sure I have a full list; do you know of any good general sources one could consult?

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