The Van Trump Report

How a College Dropout Turned Farm Debt into a Fertilizer Dynasty

Sir John Bennet Lawes, an English agronomist and founder of the artificial fertilizer industry died this day in 1900, but not before he would forever change how we grow our crops. Lawes found himself fatherless at the age of 8 and the responsibility of the 250-acre family farm left in the hands of just himself and his mother. The two figured it out and even made enough to send John off to college. But at the age of 20 John dropped out and came back to the family farm.  

Upon his return, John discovered the farm was now in debt. He decided there was no choice but to try something different. Over the next eight years, John experimented with both organic and inorganic fertilizers. Keep in mind, at the time, farmers were still dependent on the manure of their animals for natural fertilizer. John Lawes made it his goal to free them from this need. Around 1837, he began to experiment on the effects of various manures on plants growing in pots, and a year or two later the experiments were extended to crops in the field. His experiments with ground-up animal bones proved to be an excellent fertilizer and he subsequently discovered that sulfuric acid, a cheap byproduct of many industrial applications, could perform the same function as grinding at much less expense. From there, his next innovation was to substitute rock phosphate for the animal bone, which had similar effects as manure.

John Lawes famously stated that his discovery of synthetic fertilizer established that agriculture can be an artificial process or one that is not completely bound to the vagaries of nature. In the practical realm, his discovery led to the establishment of the fertilizer industry. In the scientific realm, Lawes would collaborate with Sir Joseph Henry Gilbert to found the Rothamsted Experimental Station, where the pair did research on the effects of artificial fertilizers on soil conditions, crop yields, and animal feeding. It’s worth mentioning that Rothamsted Experimental Station is still in existence today and is considered the oldest agricultural research station in the world. 

Lawes would patent his phosphate-sulfuric acid mixture in 1842 as “superphosphate,” the first artificial fertilizer, and within the next year, importing Chilean nitrates for the necessary nitrogen content, he had established a superphosphates manufacturing facility in Deptford. John would later found the Lawes Chemical Company Ltd., which manufactured other agricultural chemicals in addition to superphosphates. Lawes’s fertilizer business would prosper and he maintained his interest in the business for about 30 years before selling it for many millions. After the sale, and with the proceeds Lawes then took measures to ensure the continued existence of the Rothamsted experimental farm by setting aside money solely for that purpose and constituting the Lawes Agricultural Trust. Interestingly, Rothamsted Experimental Station, now called Rothamsted Research, is still administering the longest-running experiment of modern science with its Park Grass Study, which began in 1856 and hasn’t stopped being monitored. The experiment was originally designed to answer agricultural questions but has since proved an invaluable resource for studying natural selection and biodiversity. From what I understand, in the spring the field is a colorful tapestry of flowers and grasses, some plots still having the wide range of plants that most meadows probably contained hundreds of years ago. Crazy to think about what one man was able to accomplish for all of agriculture. (Source: whatwhenandhow, wiki, harpendhistory)

Rothamsted Experimental Station was founded in 1843 by John Bennet Lawes. It is the longest running agricultural research station in the world. John Bennet Lawes.

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