The imposing frontage of Rothamsted Research is passed by hundreds of drivers every day as they travel along the A1081 in Harpenden. But how many people actually know what goes on behind the walls of the 330 hectare site? Or understand the pioneering work and worldwide benefits that 176 years of agricultural research has brought about?
The origins of the organisation now known as Rothamsted Research can be traced back to the 1830s, when John Bennet Lawes, a Victorian scientist, entrepreneur and benefactor, began a series of agricultural experiments at his family estate of Rothamsted Manor. This grew into the research institution he set up at the site in 1843, and it now claims to be the oldest agricultural research establishment in the world.
After leaving Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1832, Lawes returned to help manage his family’s 16th century estate at Rothamsted Manor in Harpenden. Hoping to reduce farmers’ reliance on animal manure for fertilizer, he began a series of small-scale experiments testing the effects of ammonium salts on cabbages. He found that ammonium phosphate resulted in the greatest yields, and so for the first time highlighted the importance of phosphorus in plant nutrition. Lawes also discovered that by treating animal bones with sulphuric acid he could create a soluble phosphorus fertilizer, named superphosphate, which greatly increased turnip yields. After first patenting his process to manufacture superphosphate fertilizer from bones, Peruvian guano and phosphate rock, in 1842 he founded the Lawes Artificial Fertilizer Company in Deptford, the world’s first commercial fertilizer factory.
On his estate at Rothamsted Lawes then set up his Experimental Station, a research institution designed to assess the effect of both organic and manufactured fertilizers on crop yields. Assisted by a young chemist called Joseph Henry Gilbert, Lawes began a series of long-term field experiments, some of which continue to this day and are among the oldest continuous scientific experiments in the world. One of the best known is the Park Grass Experiment, a biological trial begun in 1856 originally to examine the effects of fertilizers and manures on hay yields, and which has been continuously monitored ever since.
The collaboration between Lawes and Gilbert lasted for 57 years, and laid the foundations for a modern scientific approach to agriculture and the principles of crop nutrition. In 1854, Lawes was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1882 he was created a baronet. Seven years later the Lawes Agricultural Trust was set up with an endowment of £100,000, so as to ensure the continuation of the experiments at Rothamsted. Now Sir John Bennet Lawes, he died in 1900 and is buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard, Harpenden, alongside his wife Catherine.
Rothamsted continues to play an important role in world-wide agricultural research, and now boasts an annual budget of £37 million and 410 staff. The institute’s pioneering developments have contributed to huge increases in agricultural productivity around the world, and will continue to offer solutions and improvements as the world’s population increases. The organisation’s own mission statement sums up its continued relevance in today’s world, some 176 years since Rothamsted Experimental Station was first set up by John Bennet Lawes:
Rothamsted’s mission is to deliver the knowledge and practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.