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The Mineral Theory

Author(s): Richard P. Aulie


Source: Agricultural History, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 369-382
Published by: Agricultural History Society
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3741855
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RIC H A R D P. A U LIE

THE MINERAL THEORY

During the nineteenth century, the question of the interdependence of


plants, soil, and the atmosphere engaged the attention of agricultural
chemists in Europe. The sources of plant nitrogen, the chemistry of
crop rotations, and the decomposition of organic residues-these became
the bases for the conceptual view now recognized as the "nitrogen
cycle." Central to these studies was the very practical question of whether
mineral fertilizers alone would maintain soil fertility, or whether their
action must be augmented by nitrogenous sources. Answering this ques
tion would therefore lead the enterprising farmer to invest his money
in fertilizers of quite different character, according to the view he
adopted.
Chief among the agricultural chemists active on this research frontier
was Jean Baptiste Boussingault (1802-1887), who in the period from
1836 to 1876 applied organic analysis to the problem of the sources o£
plant nitrogen.1 He demonstrated during the 1840s and 1850s that both
minerals and nitrogen are necessary in plant nutrition. On the other
hand, the chemist Baron Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) at the Univer-
sity of Giessen argued forcefully from 1840 to 1856 that plants received
the major portion of their nitrogen from atmospheric ammonia that
was washed down automatically in the rain. The corollary of this view
was the "mineral theory"-soil fertility could be maintained by the
mineral constituents of artificial fertilizers that lacked nitrogenous com-
ponents. But the well-to-do landowner Sir John Bennet Lawes (1814-
1900) and the chemist Dr. Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-l901)vigorousl
took exception to this view during 1843-1855 at the Rothamsted Ex-
perimental Station at Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England. Boussin-
gault's research was to a large extent the starting point of the contro-
versy between Liebig and the workers at Rothamsted. The controversy
did much to identify complex questions of plant nutrition, and helped
to stimulate the growth of the fertilizer industry.

RICHARD P. AULIE is a lecturer in natural science at Loyola University of Chicago.


1 Richard P. Aulie, "Boussingault and the Nitrogen Cycle," Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society 114 (December 1970): 435-79; Aulie, "Origin of the
Idea of the Nitrogen Cycle," The American Biology Teacher 33 (November 1971):
461-71.

369

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370 AGRICULTURAL HISTORY

Early in the century, the British chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-
1829) and the French physiologist Nicholas Theodore de Saussure (1767-
1845) both maintained that mineral nutrients came from the soil. But
influential chemists for a number of years either discounted the im-
portance of these nutrients or advanced the alchemical idea that livirlg
plant tissue could actually transmute them as needed out of organlc
materials or water.2 Although Boussingault never took a stand agairlst
transmutation, his organic analyses of crop rotations from 1834 to 1841,
in which he compared the constituents of fertilizers with those of crops,
substantially weakened this idea of transmutation, even while he em-
phasized nitrogen. He was aware that, along with carbon, hydrogen,
oxygen, and particularly nitrogen, the minerals of plants are important
in nutrition and may be accounted for by analyzing the crops and fer-
tilizers. He therefore amplified Davy's and Saussure's earlier views.
13oussingault agreed that both fertilizers and plants contain minerals,
though in small quantities, but he maintained that nutritional value
is proportional to their nitrogen content.3
Farmers since at least Roman times had known that legumes in crop
rotations would maintain the yield of a succeeding crop, but the reason
was by no means clear. The first to delineate the organic chemistry of
soil depletion and renewal, Boussingault showed by 1841 that this bene-
ficial action of legumes was due to their ability to restore nitrogen to
the soil, beyond that supplied by known sources. This demonstration
was undoubtedly one of his most outstanding accomplishments. Present
in the least concentration, nitrogen is dissipated the most readily in
organic decay; Boussingault therefore regarded nitrogen as the com-
ponent whose concentration it was especially important to ascertain.
Its proportion, relative to the minerals, established the comparative
value of different fertilizers.4
Boussingault's interpretation differed from what Liebig promulgated.

2 Sir Humphry Davy, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry (London: Longman,


1814), 273; Nicholas Theodore de Saussure, Recherches Chimiques sur la Vegetation
(Paris: Nyon, 1804), chaps. 5, 8, 9; Antoine J. C. Chaptal, Elements of Chemistry
(Philadelphia: Benjamin, 1807), 2: 209-10, 282, 300-301; Henry Braconnot, "Sur la
force assimilatrice dans les vEgetaux," Annales de Chimie et de Physique 61 (1807):
187, 246; William Prout, On the Nature and Treatment of Stomach and Urinary
Diseases, 3d ed. (London: Churchill, 1840), xxvii, xxviii.
3Jean Baptiste Boussingault, "Recherches sur la quantite d'azote contenue dans
les Fourrages, et sur leur Equivalens," Annales de Chimie et de Physique, Sd ser.
63 (1836): 22544; ibid. 67 (1838): 408-21.
4 Boussingault, (a) "Recherches chimiques sur la vegetation. Troisieme Memoire.
De la discussion de la valeur relative des assolements par l'analyse elementaire,"
Comptes Rendus 7 (1838): 1149-55 (read to the Academy of Sciences in Paris in De-
cember 1838); (b) "De la discussion de la valeur relative des assolements, par les

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THE MINERAL THEORY 371

The relative importance of nitrogen and minerals becal:ne the issue be-
tween the two chemists, and very shortly between Liebig and the Roth-
amsted workers. Liebig had acquired a prestigious outlet for his views
through arl invitation from the British Association for the Advance-
ment of Science to prepare a report on advances in organic chemistry;
he wrote instead Chemistry in its X pplications to Agriculture and Physi-
ology. In the first two editions (1840, 1842), while advancing his in-
genious view that plants obtain their nitrogen from ammonia in the
rain, he argued that "cultivated plants receive the same quantity of
nitrogen from the atmosphere as trees, shrubs, and other wild plants;
hut this is not sufficient for the purposes of agriculture." 5 This sentence
would seem to indicate that he recognized the rleed for nitrogenous
fertilizerss as did Boussingault.
But the Agricultural Chemistry clearly emphasized the inorganic
constituents of plants, soil, and fertilizers, even though Liebig was
aware of Boussirlgault's work, particularly that of 1838, which, he ad-
mitted, "merits the greatest confidence."6 The characteristic action of
fertilizers was not the nitrogen, Liebig insisted, bllt rather their inor-
ganic constituents the most beneficial of which were "phosphates of
lime and magnesia, carbonate of lime and silicate of potash," and also
common salt (sodium chloride). These minerals could be added to the
soil in artificial form.7
According to Liebig, the nitrogen in fertilizers has the subsidiary
role of assisting in the ;fixation of carbon from the atmosphere. Further-
more, if the nitrogen removed from the soil by crops were replaced
artificially by fertilizers, it would only accumulate needlessly in the soil,
because a portion is added continually from the atmosphere as ammonia.
While doubting that nitrates act through their nitrogen, he called for

resultats de l'analyse ElEmentaire," Annales de Chimie et de Physique, 3d ser. 1


(1841): 208 46 (an extension of preceding with results of further research); (c) "Sur
les residues des rEcoltes," ibid. 3 (1841): 3S18; (d) Economie Rurale consider drns
ses rapports avec la chimie, la physiqueJ et la mineralogie, Sd ed., 2 vols. (Paris:
Bechet, 1851) 2: chap. 2 contains Boussingault's complete discussions of his rotations.
5 Justus von Liebig, Organic Chemistry in its A pplicstions to Agriculture snd
Physiology, 1st ed. (London: Taylor, I840), 85 (hereafter cited by edition and date),
ibid., 2d (1842), 84..
fiLiebig, 1st (1840), 177; 2d (1842), 166. Liebig referred to Boussingault's organic
analysis of crops that are in references 3 and 4abc.
7 Liebig, 2d (1842), 168 169. Liebig omitted manganese and iron from his list, al-
though he recognized their importance and presence in some plants. See also "Of the
Inorganic Constituents of Plants," Sd (1842); 3d (1843); 4th (1847). In 1840 he sug-
gested a convenient means of treating bones with sulfuric acid in order to prepare
them as fertilizers in soluble form, but this technique was never widely used; 1st
(1840), 184, 185.

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372 AGRIGULTURAL HISTORY

experiments to determine whether alkalis, such as sodium nitrate and


saltpeter, could be interchanged in plant nutrition. And because the
ammonium salts in guano, then being imported from South America,
are easily volatilized, he observed, the inorganic constituents are much
the more important.8
In the third and fourth editions (1843, 1847), Liebig altered the
sentence quoted above, as follows: "Cultivated plants receive the same
quantity of nitrogen from the atmosphere as trees, shrubs, and other
wild plants, and this is quite sufficient for the purposes of agriculture." 9
This slight but all-significant change reflected Liebig's increasing cer-
tainty that he was right, and it is in these two editions that he discussed
the mineral theory most categorically. There is new information on
the nature of soil depletions, what occurs during crop rotations, and
on the interactions of ammonia and minerals. The laudatory phrase
concerning Boussingault's work-"which merits the greatest confidence"
-disappears, and there is instead a critical review of Boussingault's
paper of 1841 on crop rotation as it concerns nitrogen. In using data
from this paper to support different conclusions, Liebig may have mis-
understood Boussingault's argument.
"Is fertility not quite independent of the ammonia conveyed to the
soil?" he inquired rhetorically. He was sure it was. "This questiorl is
susceptible of a simple solution," he assured his English readers.10
Fertility may be measured by analyzing the ash content of plants left
as residue when they are burned. This ash, thus derived from the in-
organic substances removed from soil by crops, can be added artificially
to restore the original fertility. By means of his ash analyses, Liebig
had classified cultivated plants according to their preponderate quan-
tities of certain minerals. "Potash" plants, such as beets, turnips, pota-
toes, and corn, have mostly alkalies and phosphates of lime; "lime"
plants were the legumes and tobacco, with alkaline earths; and "silica"
plants were wheat, oats, rye, and barley, with silicate of potash. One
therefore needed only to replace the minerals removed by a given crop

8 Liebig, 1st (1840), 189, 200; 2d (1842), 189-98. Liebig in 1842 thought that alkalis
act within plants to neutralize acids. This question in the 1840s and 1850s also in-
volved (a) the hypothesis that roots excrete toxins, (b) the "vital action" of root cells,
and (c) developing ideas on selective permeability of cell membranes. See Sir E. John
Russell, A History of Agriculture in Great Britain, 1620-1954 (London: George Allen
and Unwin, 1966), 99, 138-40. See, also, Charles Daubeny, "On the variation in the
relative proportion of Potash and Soda present in certain samples of Barley grown ln
plots of ground artificially impregnated with one or other of these Alkalies," Quar-
terly Journal of the Chemical Society 5 (1956): 9-16; also Liebig, 2d (1842), 189-91.
9 Liebig, 3d (1843), 54; 4th (1847), 54. Criticism of Boussingault in Liebig, 4th
(1847), 199-209; 3d (1843), 200-210.
10 Liebig, 3d (1843), 202, 204; 4th (1847), 201, 203.

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THE MINERAL THEORY
373

in order to maintain proper soil fertility. And this could be determined


by ash analysis.ll
Moreover, Liebig remained skeptical of the explanation Boussingault
had given for the nitrogen excess in the wheat crop of the fourth year.
He wondered how it was

conceivable that the ammonia given in the first year being a body of great
volatility and very apt to evaporate along with water, could be present in
greater quantity in the soil during the fourth year than it was in the first and
second years; or that it could yield to the oats of the fifi year the necessary
quantity of nitrogen for their growth?l2

Liebig's assessment of Boussingault's explanation was natural enough


in view of the puzzling aspects of the problem in the 1840s. Boussingault
had never claimed, of course, that all of the nitrogen of all the crops
in the five-year rotation came from the original fertilizer added at the
beginning of the first year. And this point Liebig must have missed.
Boussingault's work drew attention to the excess of nitrogen that, in-
deed, could not be so explained.l3 Then Liebig attributed to Boussing-
ault the view that "leguminous plants alone possess the power of appro-
priating, as foods nitrogen from the air, and that other cultivated pIants
do not at all possess this property." 14 While Boussingault was convinced
that legumes had a pronounced ability to accumulate nitrogen, in 1841
he had not yet ruled out the possibility that cereals might also abstract
at least some of their nitrogen from the uncombined fraction in the air.
Rather, he conjectured that, generally the excess nitrogen in all crops,
beyond that derived from known sources, came from the atmosphere.l5

11 A classification of plants in 2d (1842), 155, 156; and 3d (1843), 202-10. Liebig's


classification was partly reasonable in that legumes require considerable amounts of
lime.
2 Liebig, 3d (1843)7 205; 4th (1847), 204.
13 But Liebig did not supply evidence to support his view that the atmosphere
contained enough atnmonia to satisfy the nitrogen needs of plants; the question was
still open in 1843 (see Aulie, "Boussingault and the Nitrogen Cycle," 455-58). Nor did
he (in fact, he could not) propose an adequate explanation for the peculiar ability of
legumes to accumulate nitrogen, except for the alleged action of their surface area;
he suggested in various passages that the greater capacity of legumes to accumulate
nitrogen was due to their greater surface area of foliage.
14 Liebig, 3d (1843), 208; 4th (1847), 207.
15 What Boussingault probably meant in the 1840s was that there was a difference
in degree between cereals and legumes with respect to their ability to accumulate
nitrogen. In the late 1850s he was to conclude finally that plants, including legumes,
do not, after all, fix atmospheric nitrogen and that they obtain their needs entirely
from soil sources, while admitting that legumes remained a puzzle. See Aulie, "Bous-
singault and the Nitrogen Cycle"; Boussingault, "La valeur relative des assole-
ments," 240.

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AGRICULTURAL HISTORY
374

To Liebig in 1843, and during the years th


interpretation of crop rotation was basically s

It is of great importance for agriculture, to know


of ammonia is unnecessary for most of our cult
e+Ten be superfluous, if only the soil contains a s
food of plants, when the ammonia required f
furnished by the atmosphere.16

Liebig drew many of his conclusions in agricu


published results of other continental worker
ized for his English-speaking public. He did
repeat the extensive field tests that were B
haps there may be some basis for the acerb re
man physician and botanist Hugo von M
made mistakes because he drew his conclus
but at his writing desk, since no mention
that he has conducted nor of the facts that h
Liebig's undue generalizations and faulty em
Chemistry, he must be credited nonetheless w
audience in England and America, (a) the fu
changes characterizing plant nutrition, (b)
alchemical processes in plants, and the hum
portance of artificial fertilizers for improvin
Lawes's success with nitrogenous-phospha
1843, predisposed him to doubt the validity
But the doubts of even a landowner, partic
had not yet published, were scarcely a mat
England. Lawes's 250-acre estate in Hertford
in professional circles as an experiment st
ments were still conducted on only a small

6 Liebig, 3d (1843), 213; 4th (1847), 212.


17 Selman A. Waksman, "Liebig-the Humus Theory an
Plant Nutrition," in Forest A. Moulton, Liebig and After
AAAS, 1942), 60, 61.
18 Henry A. Curtis, "Liebig and the Chemistry of Mineral
Liebig, 61 70. For a discussion of Liebig's criticism of the
man, "Liebig-the Humus Theory"; and Charles A. Browne
cultural Chemistry (Waltham: Chronica Botanica, 1944),
"humus theory," plants received their nutrition directly fr
major portion of their carbon. This idea was related to th
that "Earth" was one of the essential elements on which p
the end of the eighteenth century it was known that the a
dioxide to plants, soil was still considered as a further so
phasized that humus was organic material undergoing tran

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THE MINERAL THEORY
375

chemist, Lawes in 1843 invited Gilbert, age twenty-six, with a recent


Ph.D. degree in chemistry from Liebig's famous laboratory at Giessen,
to join the staS at Rothamsted.l9
Lawes and Gilbert now had a nice controversy at hand to provide
direction for their first collaborative work: to test in the field the famous
mineral theory. Only Lawes's name appears on the papers published
from 1847 to 1851, and it is to him that Liebig usually addressed his
criticism. But Gilbert shared a large responsib;lity for the design of the
experiments, supervision of the field workers, and the chemical analyses.
By so doing, he quickly earned his partner's commendation, appended
to their first published reports in 1847.2° Gilbert's meticulous scientific
work reflected the influence of his training in the Giessen laboratory,
if not the views of his teacher.
As Liebig's bold notion carried the prestige of the first chemist of
Germany, it could only have revolutionary implications. British farmers
who followed nis advice treated their crops with the appropriate min-
erals; nitrogenolls fertilizers were unnecessary, because plants obtained
tileir nitrogen from ammonia in the rain. A crop of wheat needed only
to be fertilized by the minerals contained in the ash of wheat, and in
the quantity that is removed by the crop. But at Rothamsted this
was too simple a procedure for improving agricultural practice. "This
point?' obsersred Lawes, "is perllaps the most important to agriculture
wllich chemistry can solve.''2l
To te-t the acctlracy of Liebig's claim, Lawes and Gilbert subdivided
tracts of land into separate test plotsv The gray loam soil had been
exhausted by previous intensive cultivation without fertilizer. They
planted wheat, turnips3 and beans and fertilized them with individual
applications and combinations of fresh barnyard manure, potassium
phosphate and silicate, superphosphate of lime ammoniacal and nitrate
compounds, and magnesium phosphate. In 1846 they also included test
plots fertilized by Liebig's "Patent Manure," a combination oF mineral

19RIlssell, Agriculture in Great Britain, 88-104; A. D. Hall, The Book of the


Rothamsted Experiments (London: Murray, 1905) "Biographical Introduction," i-xl;
Russell, "Rothamsted and its Experimental StationJ" Agricultural History 16 (Octo-
ber 19JI2): 161-83, a useful discussion of the education and personalities of Lawes and
Gilbert, anecdotes of their quarrels with Liebig, methods of field work, and the
training of local vilIage men to do laboratory and field work. Although Lawes patented
his successful fertilizer (superphosphate of lime, phosphate of ammonia, silicate of
potassium) in 1843, he developed it about 1839; he was therefore one of the founders
of the fertilizer industry.
20Sir John Bennet Lawes, "On Agricultural Chemistry," Journal of the Royal
Agricultural Societ;y 8 (1847): 22S60; and Lawes, "On Agricultural Chemistry-Tur-
nip Culture," ibid, 494-565; both reprinted in Rothamsted Memoirs (1847) l: articles
1 and2.
21 Lawes, "On Agricultural Chemistry," 24I, 242.

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376 AGRICULTURAL HISTORY

salts that supposedly resembled wheat ash.22 This preliminary work did
not have the precision and extent of their field tests of Liebig's theory
from 1850 to 1860 that were continued until about 1900. But the aver-
age production of wheat per acre quickly showed that the mineral
manures would not work.
Because wheat contained 'spotash, magnesia, soda, and silicaS' in
addition to "phosphoric acid and lime," then, according to the theory,
merely the addition of these constituents should restore the fertility of
the soil. The deficiency of a wheat crop must therefore be due either
to the absence of these mineral constituents, or to the absence of nitro-
gen. But the addition of such minerals produced no significant increase
in the wheat, called by Lawes "nitrogen-consuming plants." Nitrogen
was therefore the critical factor in soil depletion, he concluded, and its
presence rapidly augmeIlted the effect of minerals in plant growth.
These early results were "so decisive' that Lawes thought it 'shardly
possible to have two opinions on the subject."23
But public opinion remained divided on the relative merits o£ min-
erals and nitrogerl. Liebig continued to exhort British farmers; he
announced that even the poorest sandy soils contained fully four thou-
sand pounds of residual ammonia further proof that "ammonia added
with the manure may be useful, but it certaInly is not necessary."24
Charles Giles Bridle Daubeny (1795-1867), Lawes's former teacher at
Oxford and Liebig's stalwart supporter in Great Britaind declared that
Liebig's view of the action of gypsum in the soil was correct and
Boussingault's 4'most destitute of probability.ss25 But a German critic

22 Liebig, An Address to the Agriculturists of Great Britain, Explaining the


Principles and Use of his Artificial Manures (Liverpool: Muspratt and Co., 1845).
Discusses importance of minerals in soil fertility, absorption by plants, and soil de-
pletion; includes summaries of the ash analyses of beans, peas, potatoes, clover, and
wheat by which Liebig determined contents of mineral fertilizers; gives directions
for applying to field for best results. The fertilizers, not itemized in detail, apparently
contained mostly calcium and magnesium phosphates, also sodium and potassium
carbonates, and small amounts of sodium and potassium chlorides and sulfates.
Marketed by Muspratt at £10 per ton. British patent 10616 (1845). See, also, Lawes,
"On Agricultural Chemistry," 244.
23 Lawes, $On Agricultural Chemistry," 242> 245.
24Liebig, "On Manures, v. Boussingault and Kuhlmann," Farmerss Magazine 16
(July-December 1847): 511. By comparisoIl today, two samples of Illinois prairie soil
contain 9,0 and 15,000 pounds of nitrogen in surface four feet of uneroded soil per
acre (S. R. Aldrich, "Illinois Field Crops and Soils," [Urbana: University of Illinois
College of Agriculture, Circular 901, January 1965], 16). I am indebted to Bruce
Bricker, Bushnell, Illinois, for the reference.
25 Charles Daubeny, "On the Principles of Artificial Manuring; On the Rationale
of Certain Manures Employed in Agriculture," Farmer's Magazine 14 (1854): 41s14
(quote, 414). Liebig thought the soil calcium sulphate would combine with the am-
monium carbonate brought down in the rain to form a soluable salt. Boussingault

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THE MINERAL THEORY 377

warned the British that Liebig "has not raised one grain of wheat."26
Lawes's first published results quickly substantiated the earlier con-
clusions of Boussingault, who remained aloof in the literature from
the long and colorful controversy. Moreover, Lawes and Gilbert found
the same startling and puzzling evidence, Srst obtained by Boussingault
irl the late 1830s, that legumes when grown alone, and also cereals when
grown with them in rotation, accumulate far more nitrogen than could
reasonably be attributed to the fertilizers or to residual sources in the
soil.27

Throughout the 1840s there was little recognition of the important


research then under way at Rothamsted. Indeed, the Rothamsted work
of 1847 might well have gone unnoticed even by Liebig himself, had
not Philip Pusey (1799-1861), one of the founders of the Royal Agri-
cultural Society (1839), twice its president, and editor of its journal
for seventeen years, visited Rothamsted, liked what he saw, and said
so in his annual report of 1850. Pusey's report was a professional recog-
nition of Rothamsted. It could only be disconcerting for Liebig to see
a favorable summary of Lawes's 1847 paper. Moreover, the influential
journal announced that "the mineral theory has passed away." 28
Because the journal did not carry arly of his replies (1lntil 1856), Liebig
was obliged to defend himself elsewhere. This he did for the Srst time
irl his Familiar Letters on Chemistry (3d ed., 1851), in which he attacked
Pusey's assessment of the Rothamsted paper of 1847 on wheat and
turnips, a paper that he pronotlnced as "entirely devoid of value."
Liebig criticized Lawes's assertion that ammonia was good for wheat,
and "phosphoric acid" for turnips. His patented mineral fertilizers

did not think much of this idea, although Liebig was theoretically correct. See
Boussingault, Economie Rurale 2: 40 46, 96, 97. Boussingault thought that gypsum
(pldtre) might act by supplying sulfur to plants, and also by improving soils deficient
in calcium carbonate.
26 W. Weissenborn, "Observations on Liebig's Patent Manure: with a comparative
view of the Theories of Thaer and Liebig," Farmer's Magazine 15 (January-June
1847): 367-73.
27 Lawes, "On Agricultural Chemistry" (1847). Boussingault specifically referred to
nitrogen accumulation beyond that contained in the fertilizers in "Recherches
chimiques sur la vegetation. Troisieme Memoire," 1151, 1152; and "Recherches
chimiques sur la vegetation, en treprises dans le bu t d 'examiner si les Plan tes prennent
de l'azote a l'atmosphere," Annales de Chimie et de Physique, 2d ser. 67 (1838): 5-24
(particularly 12-14, 52, 54); "Recherches chimiques . . . Deuxieme Memoire," Annales
de Chimie et de Physique, 2d ser. 69 (1838): 353-67; and "La valeur relative des
assolements."
28 Philip Pusey, "On the Progress of Agricultural Knowledge during the last Eight
Years," Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 11 (1850): 381438
(quote, 385). See Paolo E. Coletta, "Philip Pusey, English Country Squire," Agricul-
tural History 18 (April 1944): 83-91; and J. A. Scott Watson, The History of the Royal
Agricultural Society, 1839-1939 (London: 1939), 160 62.

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378 AGRICULTURAL HISTORY

were not the commercial success in-England for which he had hoped,
and so his ire was understandable. His defense may have been justified
when he implied, though lamely, that his fertilizers failed loecause they
were not prepared properly, and that this led to inadequate solubility.
In order to control solubility and subsequent loss in soil runoff, he
prescribed that the minerals should be fused with phosphates and lime.
Rainfall would then release the minerals gradually over several sea-
sons.29 But he was quite correct in insisting that the "food of plants,"
according to his list, must include potash, soda, iron, magnesia, phos-
phoric acid, sulfuric acid, and alkaline silicates, and that the major
objective in agricultural chemistry was tc) Snd the right proportions
of each.
The prompt reply from Lawes and Gilbert the same year showed the
increasing clarity .and confidence with which since 1847 they viewed
the role of minerals and nitrogen. With a detailed analysis of the twenty
wheat plots first planted in 1843, they insisted that merely analyzing
the ash of a crop is no reliable gulde either to determining its nutritional
requirements or to learning what minerals should be restored to a de-
pleted soil. Minerals found collectively irl ash do not determine fertility,
nor can their addition alone restore a soil, but rather it is also the
nitrogen whose presence is an index of fertility.
Finding evidence that legumes probably could obtain "their nitro-
gen from the atmosphere rather than from the soil," Lawes and Gilbert
freely acknowledged agreement with Boussingault, whose experiments,
they urged, "have not received the attention which they merit from the
agriculturists of this country."30 They emphasized the impossibility
of reconciling their observations with a theory that explains the rise
and fall of wheat with the quantity of minerals in the soil. A more
reasonable explanation would be that wheat cannot take up minerals
when there is a deficiency of nitrogen, and that clover, not being so
dependent cxn artiScial sources, could so absorb minerals from the soil
and nitrogen from the air that, when left in the soil, the clover could
import a new vigor to the succeeding crop. At the end of the paper,
Pusey added a note of commendation that, while it was welcome to
Lawes and Gilbert, could only mean further distress for Liebig:

29 Liebig, Familiar Letters on Chemistry, 3d ed. (London: Taylor, Walton & Maber-
ly, 1851), 480. This passage was the basis of the reply by Lawes and Gilbert, "On
Agricultural Chemistry" (1851), in which there are many quotations from Liebig.
Actually, Liebig's procedure rendered the minerals so insoluble they were unavail-
able to plants.
30 Lawes and Dr. Joseph Henry Gilbert, "On Agricultural Chemistry-especially
in relation to the Mineral Theory of Baron Liebig," Journal of the Royal Agricul-
tural Society of England 12 (1851): 140; reprinted in Rothamsted Memoirs (1847) 1:
article 5 (quote, 30).

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THE MINERAL THEORY 379

I certainly endeavoured to do justice to the real discoveries of Baron


Since the experiments, however, of Mr. Lawes and Dr. Gilbert have, as
been disputed, I am bound to say that my conEdence in the scrupulou
curacy of these gentlemen has been only strengthened by a subsequent v
Rothamsted, in company with that eminent philosopher Mons. Dumas
extent of the experimental ground-the expenditure at whidh it has bee
up-the perseverance with which, year after year, it has been maintain
such as might rather be expected from a public institution than a prisrate
owner and render to Rothamsted, at present, the principal source of
worthy scientific information on Agricultural Chemistry.

Still unrepentant, Liebig now argued in 1855 that the experim


reported by Lawes in 1847, far from disproving his mineral th
actually serared to support the doctrine they were supposed to dispro
Liebig identified deSciencies in techrlique-e.g., as regards concen
and solubllity of minerals in fertilizers and originally in soil-tha
corrected in the work begun in 1850, but he expressed no sympa
"lnhe results of Mr. Lawes have no value for his next-door neig
nay, they have no value for himself." As for the beneficial eff
ammonium salts: "None of these facts are new, and what is new
opinion of Mr. Lawes is erroneous." Repeating his standard views
big emphasized that ammonium salts in the soil facilitate the en
of minerals by increasing the solubility of phosphates. Moreover
moniacal salts alone, if used uninterruptedly, must sooner o
exhaust the soil"-but Lawes and Gilbert had never said othe
Afisinterpretation in the work of Lawes, Liebig went on, callse
31 Liebig, PrincipSs of Agricultural Chemistry with Special Reference to t
Researches Made in England (New York: Wiley, 1855), vi. This privately pu
book carried a dedication to his English friend Daubeny and a foreword by
Gregory (1803-1858), then Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh, who allow
Lawes simply did not understand the mineral theory. The anonymous review
Country Gentleman (Albany: New York, 1855) 5: 279, said: "This little pamp
86 pages does more honor to Prof. Liebig than the Baronial handle to his n
should not be said o£ him that 'too much learning had made him mad'-only
over-enthusiastic"; this review was probably by Samuel W. Johnson (183
first director of the Connecticllt Agricultural Experiment Station, New Ha
also Liebig, The Relations of Chemistry to Agriculture and the Agriculto4re
ments of Mr. J. B. Lawes (Albany, New York: 1855).
32 Russell, "Rothamsted and its Experimental Station." About 1850 Law
Gilbert rearranged their test-plots. By applying the nitrogenous dressings
and the minerals also in rows but at right angles, they could easily test variou
genous and mineral combinations. They reported the results of this ambiti
work in detail in subsequent years. For example: Lawes and Gilbert, "On Gr
Wheat by the Lois Weedon System, on the Rothamsted Soil; and on the Co
Nitrogen in Soils," Journat of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 1
582417; "Report of the Experiments on the Growth of Red Clover by di
Manures," ibid. 21 (1860): 17F200;: both reprinted in Rothamsted Afe7noires
articles 9 and 13.

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380 AGRICULTURAL HISTORY

fundamental error to which, as to a black thread, all his experiments


attach themselves."33
Twelve years had passed since Lewis and Gilbert paced off their first
test plots, and by so doing had taken on the first chemist of Europe.
Liebig's picturesque and entertaining polemic against the work at
Rothamsted, together with the 91-page reply of Lawes and Gilbert,
quickly published in January 1856 with not a small display of exasper-
ation, could add little to the work already done.34 The quarreling
parties reflected in their exchange the impasse to which the question
of plant nitrogen had come in the mid-nineteenth century, and the
many pitfalls surrounding the experiments involved. Lawes and Gilbert
could never match Liebig's delightful invective. But they were quite
able to defend their own work, test plot by test plot, and did so with
total confidence. Most of their hurried reply was a restatement of earlier
published views, except for new data on nitrogen accumulation during
crop rotation.
In his Agricultural Chemistry (1843, 1847) and again in his diatribe
of 185S, Liebig had argued that the advantage of crop rotation was that
crops cultivated in a sequence abstract from the soil unequal quantities
of minerals.35 Thus, the diminution of lime would prevent the legumes
from accumulating atmospheric ammonia. Furthermore, the ammo-
niacal salts in fertilizer are beneficial, not because of their nutritional
value, but because they facilitate the absorption of minerals by increas-
ing their solubility. Wheat, a "silica plant," should therefore come
early in the sequence, and the "lime plants," or legumes, should come
toward the end, being less dependent on the silica.
Reporting on their own crop rotations, Lawes and Gilbert correctly
pointed out that, if Liebig were correct, then the clover, interposed
between two cereal crops (barley and wheat), should have absorbed
fewer minerals than either the barley or wheat. Furthermore, the clover
should have a nitrogen content more generally equal to that of the other

33 Liebig, Principles of Agricaltural Chemistry, 81, 86, 90, 91.


34 Lawes and Gilbert, "On some Points Connected with Agricultural Chemistry,"
Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 16 (1855): 411-502; reprinted
in Rothamsted Memoirs (1847) 1: article 8, "On some points connected with Agricul-
tural Chemistry; being a reply to Baron Liebig's Principles of Agricultural Chem-
istry." Russell, "Rothamsted and its Experimental Station," 176, 177, said that this
is the editor's expurgated version of what Gilbert wrote about Liebig. Liebig had
announced that he would attend the 1855 meeting in Glasgow of the British Associa-
tion for the Advancement of Science to answer Lawes and Gilbert. Lyon P. Playfair
(1818-1898), President of the Chemistry Section, urged Gilbert to attend. Gilbert
later remarked that Liebig was "wanting . . . in the integrity even of a gentleman
. . . thanks to his own temper and obstinacy, we cannot now spare him as we should."
35 Liebig, 3d (1843; 4th (1847); Principles of Agricultural Chemistry, 22,.

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THE MINERAL THEORY 381

crops in the sequence. But this had not happened. The clover had (a)
removed more phosphates, potash, magnesia, and particularly lime,
than the other crops, even in the absence of ammoniacal salts, which
were to assist, when present, their absorption; (b) acquired a much
larger concentration of nitrogen; and had also (c) allowed the subse-
quent wheat crop to absorb quite as much potash as had been absorbed
the first year by the turnips, a "potash plant." Therefore, the beneficial
effect of clover can have had nothing to do with conserving minerals,
because it extracted large amounts of those minerals required by the
wheat. Yet the succeeding wheat crop found in the soil as many minerals
as had the previous crops, even in the rotations lacking ammoniacal
salts that otherwise were supposed to assist that extraction.36 In thus
meeting the objections of Liebig's theory of rotation, they verified Bous-
singault's discovery of the greater capacity of legumes than of cereals
to accumulate nitrogen, though they did so by a different experimental
route.
In 1856 the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society finally pub-
lished one of Liebig's replies. In his final defense of his mineral theory,
also mentioning Gilbert, Liebig complained that his Rothamsted critics
had willfully misunderstood him, but admitted that legumes could
flourish without additional nitrogen whereas grains frequently did not.
An adequate supply of minerals, however, would rectify this difference.
Enormous residual soil nitrogen, confirmed by his many ash analyses
in 1846, had fortified his reliance on rlatural soil sources that were con-
stantly replenished by atmospheric ammonia. Although guano and
ammoniacal salts would temporarily increase soil fertility, he went on,
only minerals could render a permanent renewal. Indeed, undue appli-
cation of nitrogen-rich fertilizers by the tenant farmer only "prepares
for the proprietor the ruin of his land."37 Such treatment leads inevit-
ably to further extraction of beneficial minerals from the soil. In any
case, Liebig admonished, Lawes and Gilbert in their field tests of his
theory simply had not used enough of llis mineral manures to make
them work.
It had become plain, from the researches of Boussingault, from those
of Lawes and Gilbert, alld from the prolific writings of Liebig, that
plants manufactured their own food from identifiable chemicals re-
moved from the air and the soil, rather than receiving it ready-made

36 Lawes and Gilbert, "On some Points Connected with Agricultural Chemistry,"
49F98. Boussingault made similar observations in his Rural Economy, 1st ed. (New
York: Appleton, 1850), 369.
37 Liebig, "On some points in Agricultural Chemistry," Journal of the Royal
Agricultural Society of England 17 (1856): 28v326 (quote, 311).

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382 AGRICULTURAL HISTORY

in organic form (humus). Moreover, the central problem for agricul-


ture, as Liebig observed in 1851, was to learn "how to give to an artificial
mixture of the individual ingredients the mechanical form and chem-
ical qualities essential to their reception and to their nutritive action
on the plant."38 So it is in this context of expanding the understanding
of plant nutrition, and advances in the development of artificial fertil-
izers, that the controversy over the mineral theory must be set.
The controversy in the literature had run its course by the end of
1856. Minerals and nitrogen were necessary in plant nutrition, and both
had to be provided when necessary. Lawes and Gilbert soon conducted
laboratory experiments on nitrogen fixation; for many years they invest-
igated nitrogen accumulation in the field, and published important
contributions thereon.39 By 1863 Liebig still had not altered his opin-
ions of his erstwhile opponents:

The experiments of Messrs. Lawes and Gilbert are very far, indeed, from prov-
ing the conclusions which they wish to draw; they establish rather the fact that
these gentlemen have not the slightest notion of what is meant by argument or
proof.40

But Liebig now admitted the importance of farmyard manure, without


acknowledging, however, that he once held a contrary view. In lS64
Lawes and Gilbert made a rather more mellow assessment of their con-
troversy with Liebig, and, apparently on a calmer day, observed:

But it is especially to the laborious investigations on agricultural chemistry of


Boussingault, and to the generalizations of Liebig to a great extent founded
upon them, nearly a quarter of a century ago, that we must attribute much of
the stimulus and direction that has been given to chemical inquiries in con-
nexion with agriculture in recent times.4

38 Liebig, Familiar Letters on Chemistry, 481


39 Lawes, Gilbert, and Evan Pugh, "On the Sources of the Nitrogen of Vegetation;
with special references to the Question whether Plants assimilate Free or Uncom-
bined Nitrogen," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 151 (1861): 431-
577; reprinted in Rothamsted Memoirs (1893) 3: article 1; Lawes and Gilbert, "Re-
sults of Experiments at Rothamsted on the Growth of Leguminous Crops for many
zlears in succession on the same land," Rothamsted Memoirs (1893) 6: article 15.
40 Liebig, The Natural Laws of Husbandry (London: Walton, 1863), 298. This
contains an extensive discussion of the controversy with Lawes and Gilbert.
41 Lawes and Gilbert, "Report of Experiments on the Growth of Wheat for Twenty
years in succession on the same land," Rothamsted Memoirs (1893) 3: article 4, p. 6.
First published in Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 25 (1864):
4453-501. This article summarizes the Rothamsted experiments that tested the min-
eral theory.

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