Sir John Bennet Lawes

Pioneer of Rothamsted Experimental Station

Rothamsted Manor
Herts Archives and Local Studies Ref 9DE/Z119/3/410)

Rothamsted was the home of Sir John Bennet Lawes (1814-1900) a pioneer of science, farming and industry. Sir John’s first act on inheriting Rothamsted was to order one of the best bedrooms to be fitted up as a laboratory (much to his mother’s dismay).

In 1843 he founded the Rothamsted Experimental Station, which now has an international reputation for agricultural research, and launched the first of a series of long-term field experiments, some of which continue today.

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  • Sir John Bennet Lawes’ reflected on how his interest in science developed as these extracts from a letter to Mr John Chalmers Morton in 1888:

    “In my days Eton and Oxford were not of much assistance to those whose tastes were scientific rather than classical, and consequently, my early pursuits were of a most desultory character. Matters, however, began to look serious when, 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 reagents necessary for chemical research.”

    At first he was more interested in the composition of drugs and “almost knew the pharmacopoeia by heart”. He grew “poppies, hemlock, henbane, colchicum, belladonna etc” on his farm. He spent a great deal of time and money on a process “for making calomel and corrosive sublimate by burning quicksilver in chlorine gas” – which was no improvement on existing processes. “Failures, however, have their value, as I found out afterwards.”

    Meanwhile he had taken on the running of the Rothamsted farm of 250 acres in 1834. “Farmers were suffering from the abundance of the crops, and wheat, although rigidly protected, was very low in price. For three or four years I do not remember that any connection between chemistry and agriculture passed through my mind; but the remark of a gentleman who farmed near me, who pointed out that on one farm bones were invaluable for the turnip crop, and on another farm they were useless, attracted my attention a good deal, especially as I had spent a great deal of money on bones without success. Somewhere about this time a drug broker in the City of London asked me whether I could make any use of precipitated gypsum and spent animal charcoal, both of which substances held at the time no market value. Some tons of these were sent down, and, as sulphuric acid was largely use by me in making chlorine gas, the combination of the two followed.

    “The successful application of the superphosphate on my own fields caused me to take out a patent, and send it for trial elsewhere. …. All this time I was carrying on a very large number of experiments with chemical manures, but they were performed upon areas of land too small to give trustworthy acreage results. I think the Gardeners’ Chronicle, which was first published in 1840, contains the result of my earliest experiment with various chemical salts.”

    These beginnings led to the establishment of formal research by 1843, with the first longterm wheat experiment on Broadbalk field, and the appointment of J Henry Gilbert, all funded from the profitable manufacture of superphosphates at Sir John’s fertiliser factory at Bow Creek and later at Deptford Creek.

    By Rosemary Ross (21/01/2011)

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