Title Reviewed:
Agricultural Science and the Quest for Legitimacy: Farmers, Agricultural Colleges, and Experiment Stations, 1870–1890

Author Reviewed:
Alan I Marcus

R. Douglas Hurt


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 82, Issue 3, pp 292-293

Article Type:
Book Review

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Agricultural Science and the Quest for Legitimacy: Farmers, Agricultural Colleges, and Experiment Stations, 1870–1890. By Alan I Marcus. (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1985. Pp. x, 269. Notes, bibliographic essay, index. $22.50.)

In 1887 the Hatch Act created the agricultural experiment station system. Since that time scientists at the state experiment stations have been engaged in basic and applied research. They have discovered new knowledge, and they have helped farmers use it to solve a host of agricultural problems. As a result, farmers are more productive and efficient than ever before. The creation of the experiment stations, however, was a difficult and hard-won achievement. Although farmers wanted to improve their vocations, they were not united about how to do so. During the 1870s and early 1880s farmers and scientists debated whether agricultural research should be pure or applied, whether it should be conducted in the field or laboratory, and whether it should be the domain of professionals or laymen. Moreover, they disagreed about which bodies should control agricultural experiment stations—the federal or state governments, farm organizations, or state agricultural colleges.

Between the creation of the Connecticut agricultural experiment station in 1875 and the development of New York's station five years later, the prevailing concept of agricultural experimentation fundamentally changed. Instead of supporting research institutions that were little more than state chemistry shops involved with the testing of commercial fertilizers, advocates of experiment stations began to champion the benefits of both pure and applied research. During the 1880s they also increased public support for the creation of a nationwide, federally endowed, college-based agricultural experiment-station system. As early as 1882 Seaman A. Knapp, professor of agriculture at Iowa Agricultural College, drafted a bill to create those experiment stations. Although Congress did not pass Knapp's bill, it did incorporate the essential research features of his plan into the Hatch Act six years later.

Alan I Marcus, associate professor of history at Iowa State University, has written an important book about the development of experiment stations that preceded the Hatch Act. Marcus analyzes the long and often bitter struggle between farmers and scientists for the creation and control of agricultural experiment stations. He proves that the research laboratory was not always central to agricultural experimentation, that agricultural chemistry and agricultural science are not synonymous, and that the college-based, agricultural experiment stations were founded as much on philosophy as on scientific and economic need. This is a perceptive, well-reasoned, and thoroughly researched study of a complex problem that involved the agricultural, political, scientific, and academic communities. Anyone interested in agricultural history will find this book illuminating and useful. It is a solid contribution to the field.

The Ohio Historical Society, Columbus R. Douglas Hurt

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.