Sir Albert Howard in India

By Louise E. Howard

Final Remarks

When Sir Albert Howard, on his first leave from India in 1910, visited his old College at Wye and again met the Kentish hop growers with whom he had been on terms of such cordial friendship, their welcoming speech described him as 'a man who insisted on knowing all about everything'. There certainly was a wholesome portion of curiosity in Sir Albert's make-up, allied with a thoroughness which, after a strict scientific training, became magnificently organized for useful ends. If his instinct for 'knowing all' led him to a lifetime of massive investigation, he was saved from mental rigidity by that lively alertness which so charmed all who met him. These compensating qualities were combined in a very happy way.

Another distinguishing trait was a great humility of mind. This was hidden. In public his verdicts lacked no sort of decision, were often sharp and condemnatory. He was a born fighter, evoked opposition, and enjoyed it, acquiring towards the end of his life a devastating capacity for turning an argument inside out to confound an opponent. He was determined, exceedingly shrewd, and sometimes extremely obstinate.

It was the shrewdness of his insight, allied with his inherited sympathy for the farmer's point of view, which led to those criticisms of contemporary scientific research which earned him the reputation of being a very difficult colleague. But it is to be remembered what he met in India. Possibly he was unfortunate that in starting on the sorting out of varieties he found in crop after crop preceding work in India which was practically worthless or at best non-existent; that in accommodating his classifications to European systems he could never find anything that fitted the tropics; that he came across the 'quite incredible' omission on the part of Kew, the Linnaean Society, and the curators of Indian herbariums to list more than a single Indian hemp when quite obviously five different varieties and eight types were easily identifiable; that when he came to look at practice he visited no official farm but where the ground was so waterlogged as to make variety trials of crops a farce; that he had the problem of the indigo wilt thrust upon him after every scientist in the place had failed to solve it because no one had started by trying to make the plant grow; that he was actually the first, after nearly fifty years of research in a number of countries, to put his finger on the unpardonable carelessness of using unsorted material for the study of an injurious and serious disease like lathyrism. These instances of ineptitude were startling, but they may have been accidental; the real grounds of criticism were much wider -- that unfortunate lapse into 'fragmentation' of effort between a number of competing departments which could only stifle initiative and limit judgment; this departmentalism was supported by authority to such an extent that in course of time the organization of agricultural research in India, and indeed in other countries, became in Sir Albert Howard's view 'obsolete'.

Contrasted with the pretensions of science -- the word is not too severe for what Sir Albert encountered -- were the very ancient practices of the Eastern cultivators. It was here that what I have called Sir Albert Howard's humility guided him. Without it he would not have been willing, almost from the first moment of arrival, to pay such close attention to the day-to-day performance of the peasant world. Though confronted with some ignorance and a good many shortcomings, he allowed himself to be convinced of the permanent validity of the peasant achievement. As he himself says, he met a people who were so experienced that, when it came to dealing with cultivation problems, they 'seemed born with a special papri-breaking sense', and, in general, an agriculture on which time had impressed the appropriate characters over a period of more than two thousand years. To introduce a stream of trivial improvements to such a people might be reckoned an impertinence and it was to Sir Albert Howard's credit that, though a scientist from the Western world, he was able to respect a conservatism 'which had saved the race from disaster'. He was himself fortunate in being able to offer to India results worthy of her notice, but he could not have done so had he not first been receptive to her teaching. He never departed from the principle laid down early in his career that to impose Western methods on Indian agriculture was a fundamental error and that the only thing to do was 'to improve Indian agriculture on its own lines'.

Like every good worker he was prepared to learn from his own failures. The fruit trees at Pusa, sinking into a 'pitiable' condition, were landmarks leading him forward to an understanding of diseased conditions of plants; the tobacco plants which varied from eighteen inches to ten feet in height taught him the necessity of first dealing with soil conditions before embarking on the refinements of variety trials; the Quetta fruit merchants who were too busy to look at his new fruit crates evoked his human capacity for understanding the ordinary difficulties of life. Common sense and above all a most penetrating observation were everywhere applied, an observation which rivalled that so uniquely displayed by the great Darwin, much of whose general attitude of mind towards the phenomena of science was repeated in Sir Albert Howard.

This was why Sir Albert Howard's work was later found to have a universal validity. What he learnt in India were the facts: the deductions he drew from them were true and were exact, so that they came to be easily and speedily applied to Western agriculture; every further experience confirmed them. The man who stood for them became the natural champion of our own lowly earthworm because he had been impelled to say a good work for the abused termite of the East.

I will not call him a genius, but I present him as the forerunner and introducer of a revolution in agriculture which may be of the utmost use and consequence to the world at large.

Albert Howard, C.I.E. , M.A., F.L.S.

Born 8th December 1873, at Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, son of Richard Howard, farmer, and Ann Howard, neé Kilvert; died 20th October1947 at Blackheath, London, S.E. Educated Wrekin College, Royal College of Science, South Kensington, and as Foundation Scholar, St. John's College, Cambridge.

Married, 1905, Gabrielle Louise Caroline Matthaei; 1931, Louise Ernestine Matthaei.

1896, 1897, First Class Natural Sciences Tripos, Cambridge, first in England, Cambridge Diploma of Agriculture, second in England, National Diploma of Agriculture; 1899, Lecturer in Agricultural Science, Harrison College, Barbados; 1899, 1902, Mycologist and Agricultural Lecturer, Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies; 1903-5, Botanist to the South-Eastern Agricultural College, Wye; 1905-24, Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India; 1914, created Companion of the Indian Empire (C.I.E.); 1920, Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Arts; 1924-31, Director of the Institute of Plant Industry, Indore, and Agricultural Adviser to States in Central India and Rajputana; 1928, Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal; 1930, Barclay Memorial Medal of that Society; 1934, knighted; 1935, Hon. Fellow of the Imperial College of Science.

Gabrielle Louise Caroline Howard, M.A., F.L.S.

Born 3rd October 1876, in London, daughter of E. C. H. Matthaei, merchant, and of Louise Henriette Matthaei, neé Sueur, musician; died 18th August 1930, at Geneva.

Educated South Hampstead High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls; scholar, Newnham College, Cambridge; First Class, Natural Sciences Tripos, Cambridge; Bathurst Research Student, Fellow, and Demonstrator in Chemistry at that College, later Associate; researched under Prof. F. F. Blackman, F.R.S., on transpiration and respiration of plants (Trans. of the Roy. Soc.); 1905, married Albert Howard; 1910, Personal Assistant to her husband; 1913, Second Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India and Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal.

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