There is currently bit of a hoo-ha going on at Rothamsted Research over genetically engineered wheat. Regardless what you think of the rights and wrongs of genetic engineering we should recognize the two men who established this institution, Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901) and John Bennet Lawes (1814-1900).
Almost exactly 169 years ago, on 1st June 1843 Joseph, who was trained as an analytic chemist, started working on John’s agricultural estate at Rothamsted, Hertfordshire. Together they set up a series of experiments to investigate plant and animal nutrition. Their scientific partnership lasted for years.
Their devotion to scientific research meant that rather than accepting standard practices on trust they designed experiments to provide evidence for what actually worked. For instance they demonstrated that plants needed certain chemicals in the soil to grow well. In the early days this was poorly understood and they had a long running argument with Justus Liebig (a prominent scientist of the day and inventor of the OXO cube) who thought that nitrogen-fixing legumes drew what they needed from the atmosphere. After 20 years Justus agreed that Joseph and John were right.
John and Joseph probably would have approved of growing genetically modified wheat in fields to see what happened. They were both advocates of artificial fertilizers, not because organic fertilizers didn’t work, but because they believed that in order to feed the growing population new methods were necessary. Their turn of mind meant that they tended to opt for chemical solutions. Looking back we know that artificial fertilizers didn’t instantly solve malnutrition in 19th century Britain. Part of their legacy should be to encourage us to take a longer and wider view of the issues.