The Cycle of Life:
An History of Experimental Ecology

Sterling Memorial
Kline Sciences
Medical Historical
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John Pitkin Norton, 1822-1952

John Pitkin Norton found agricultural chemistry a desirable outlet for his considerable reforming energies. In 1847, he would become the leader of that science in the United States. Norton was born in 1822 in Albany, NY to a respected aristocratic family that had produced notable governors, businessmen, and statesmen. He spent his youth traveling between the family farm in the appropriately-named Farmington, CT, and NY’s active capital Albany. This mixed rural and city existence provided a perfect context for combing the new scientific methods of agricultural chemistry with practical farming. His father’s enthusiasm for agricultural chemistry infected his son. Both followed the new developments in this science in the Cultivator—the most popular agricultural journal of the time; they also experimented with their own crops, and participated in agricultural competitions. With his father’s encouragement, young Norton took these advanced amateur interests to a new level—he arranged independent courses with professors in agriculturally related subjects at Yale, and in New York, and Boston.

It was at Yale, when studying chemistry with Benjamin Silliman and his son Benjamin Silliman Jr., that Norton first encountered the scientific notion of a “cycle of life.” Silliman described this view in his courses and later textbook First Principles of Chemistry for the Use of Colleges and Schools; describing the cycle of life as “the assimilation of lifeless particles by plants from the atmosphere, soil, and waters.” These particles, he explained “once taken into the plants’ structure” . . . “are transformed by the vital force into the woody fiber, starch, and protein of the plant,” which provide the nutritional materials for animals. The cycle was complete when, “by the regular processes of life these [particles] are again set free in their original forms of carbonic acid, ammonia and water and are once more . . . ready to enter the upward current of organic life.” For Silliman, this process was a “beautiful adjustment of organic forces, which maintained the balance of nature’s two great kingdoms.” He reassured his students that “the mind rests with equal pleasure and admiration on these beautiful laws, which silently, but unceasingly, work out an expression of the Almighty Will.”

In the 1840s, to have a successful career in the agricultural sciences, Norton would need to study in Europe. Although Liebig had a strong following amongst New England’s elite farmers, Norton was aware that the Sillimans, after an initial devotion to Liebig’s agricultural chemistry, had shifted their allegiance to the views of Johnston in England and to the French School of Dumas and Jean Baptiste Boussingault. Following their advice, Norton studied first with Johnston in England and Edinburgh, and then, advised by Johnston, worked with Mulder in Utrecht. Here Norton imbibed the growing anti-Liebig sentiments of his new intellectual community—and drank in little else—from America he brought his devotion to temperance activities consuming only water and even chastising his consuming Scottish colleagues. With Johnston, Norton continued his study of organic chemistry and took on a new experimental question related to agriculture—a comprehensive and extensive analysis of the chemical constitution of oats. This project united his laboratory investigations, interactions with the local farmers, and the theoretical views of Johnston and Mulder, a synthesis that would model his approach upon return to the United States.

Back in the United States, Norton realized that his work had just begun. European ideas about managing agriculture had to be translated to the American audience. For example, in order to quiet local criticisms against British Henry Stephen’s The Farmer’s Guide to Scientific and Practical Agriculture, in which he “detail[ed] the labors of the farmer in all their variety, and adapting them to the seasons of the year as they successively occur” Norton co-authored it and added lengthy appendices. Here and in articles to the Cultivator he defended the use of foreign works on agriculture, even though others considered them unreliable sources for improving and managing American soils. Norton likewise reassured the editors of Cultivator that although some criticisms were valid, for the most part, foreign agricultural treatises did provide good advice for managing the soil.
He based this positive assessment primarily on his holistic understanding of agriculture—that is, he believed that the same natural laws applied to soils and crops across the globe. He described these laws in the language of the organic chemistry and plant physiology that he had learned first at Yale with the Sillimans and later with the Johnston and Mulder. Finally, he developed them into his own vision for agriculture when he returned to New England.

In the late 1840s, now a Yale professor, Norton advised scientists and agriculturalists how to improve their understanding of soil management through chemistry. The role of organic matter in nature permeated all of Norton’s presentations. For example, in and address to the Annual Show of the New York State Agricultural Society in 1848, he recognized that “the farmer of the present day, who desires to improve, and to thoroughly understand his profession, has a wide range [of options] before him. All of the natural sciences offer advantageous fields for exploration. In the air, the earth, the water, in the vegetable and animal worlds, the mind once aroused, finds sufficient space for its utmost energies.” He opted to focus his discussion on the soil, not “because it offered a broader field that the others, but because it seems naturally to come first when we speak of improvement, and “because it is the foundation from which all progress must be made.”

After treating briefly the “structure, physical properties and chemical composition of the soil, Norton turned to the role of organic matter in soil fertility. There were two great classes of bodies, inorganic and organic. Organic matter consisted either of living defined organs or their products. When exposed to heat the organic part burns and disappears—thus showing that it had originally been nothing but air. To form these bodies from the different kinds of air, requires the action of living organs. Inorganic substances are also present in the plant, and in the animal, but they were not formed in the plant, merely drawn in by it from the soil. The organic matter of the soil is derived from the death and decay of plants and animals, and when in the form of vegetable mould (or humus) it exercises a remarkably beneficial influence on all our cultivated crops. [In other words, it is better than inorganic manures] To close this natural cycle, Norton noted that this organic matter in the soil originally derived from the atmosphere.

In an elegant synthesis of his religious views and his reading of the Mulder, Norton sang of the beauty of these principles. For they showed that “the endless chain which joins the dead earth to the living planet, the plant to the animal, and the animal to the earth again, is even sublime in its unceasing series of changes.” It seemed strange to him, that “the bare earth, so despised, so formless, should be, by the laws of its maker, the source of all material things.” “Our delight still increases” he said, “when we find that these admirable productions of nature are but the connecting link with a yet higher state of life, the means of sustaining still more complicated, more wonderful structures.” The idea that “Life and Beauty are nourished by decay,” strongly reminded Norton of Mulder, who had called this inarticulate, mysterious, production the “the striving of matter after harmony.”

Norton associated humans intimately with this vital circulation: “If we live forty years,” he said, “we have been ten or twelve times entirely renewed, and the original particles of our frames are scattered over the face of the earth, contributing to the growth and nourishment of other bodies.” These few examples from the many demonstrate Norton’s synthetic view, a view that would outlive Norton, whose original particles succeeded in were renewed perhaps only with times, died in 1852 at the young age of thirty. By this time, however, Norton had taught his approach to agriculture to a number of students at the Yale’s newly-founded Sheffield Scientific School.

John Pitkin Norton, 1822-1852

William Henry Brewer, 1826-1910
Lloyd Ackert
Whitney Humanities Center
Yale University
53 Wall Street
P.O. Box 208298
New Haven, CT 06520-8298
Office: (203).432.3112

The Exhibit is located at Manuscripts and Archives, in the lobby of the Library Lecture Hall.

Manuscripts and Archives
Sterling Memorial Library
130 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06520-8240

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