Sir Albert Howard in India

By Louise E. Howard

Chapter 1
Career and Work in India

The Two Scientists

The year 1905 was a good moment for an approach by a Western scientist to the Indian agricultural problem. Unco-ordinated previous research, in some cases dating back many years, had been carried on in the separate Provinces; it was indeed still being argued that, in view of the wide range of climate, soils, and crops in this huge country, agricultural investigations ought to continue thus localized and dispersed. But Lord Curzon's insistence on an all-India research station, to serve his newly founded Imperial Department of Agriculture, had prevailed, and the Agricultural Research Institute of Pusa had been set up in the previous year, 1904, in the fertile Province of Bihar, to comprise thirteen separate sections.

It was a good moment because one of the best periods of scientific investigation into agricultural problems had begun. The rediscovery of the Mendelian laws of inheritance and their working out at Cambridge under Professor Bateson and others was proving an inspiration; twenty to thirty years of intensive and exciting plant breeding lay ahead. As a student Albert [Howard had shared in this awakening, which had its general effect on all scientists in biological fields. Indeed, there was a very powerful uprise of scientific effort during these years and not only agricultural botany, but other applied sciences, were developing on vigorous lines.

Meanwhile very favourable conditions prevailed in India itself. The worst incidence of famine and plague had been surmounted; the material benefits of British rule were now plain to see. The political situation was only latent, nationalist aspirations not yet being so far advanced as to cause difficulty. Before Sir Albert Howard left India he saw these begin to gather force, but for many years his work was tranquilly carried out without question, it being taken for granted that it was the function of the British Government in India to confer on the peoples of India all the advantages of Western scientific discovery. The last part of his career was spent in the independent State of Indore, where personal contact with the Ruling Prince and advice on agricultural problems both to this and other Rajput and Central Indian States was allied with a wise and just abstinence from any comment on State affairs; relations continued on the happiest basis.

In these conditions Albert Howard arrived in India. He came as a young man but not as an untried investigator. He had two different types of experience and some highly successful work to his credit. In the West Indies he had been particularly successful with arrowroot, and generally had done well, though his years in Barbados were more in the nature of a scientific apprenticeship than anything else; however, he had obtained a very good insight into the growing of cacao, sugar-cane, and other tropical and semi-tropical crops. At Wye College, where he held an appointment on the staff for two and a half years, he had scored an outstanding success in his work on hops. His demonstration that the female hops of commerce could not be cultivated without the presence of the male plant alongside was an example of an instinctive awareness of the importance of natural principle. There had been much controversy among growers on the point, it being held by some that the male hop harboured disease. Sir Albert Howard was able to prove the contrary, namely, that the presence of the fertilizing male plant was a safeguard towards health; this was, in fact, the first stone in the future edifice of his theory of health in plants. Owing to the great value of the British hop industry the result so quickly and clearly arrived at was much noted at the time and gratefully received by the growers.

In addition to the advantage of arriving with so creditable an achievement to his name, Sir Albert Howard was highly favoured in his marriage. The woman who stood at his side during the long years of research in the East was not only the able housewife, the dignified hostess, and the wonderful companion, but she was also a highly trained botanist, launched on her own career of research at Cambridge, of great intellectual endowment and altogether fitted to be the comrade and inspirer of a pioneer in science, one on a level with himself, as Sir Albert never ceased to emphasize. Possibly a very few personal remarks may here be admitted, though it is not my intention to make the present account biographical. Sir Albert Howard's first wife was my eldest sister, Gabrielle Louise Caroline Matthaei. She was educated at the North London Collegiate School for Girls and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where after an excellent career as a student she held, first, a junior appointment as Demonstrator in Chemistry and then a Fellowship; during her tenure of the latter she was associated with Professor F. F. Blackman in research on transpiration and respiration in plants. Her engagement to marry broke off this work to introduce her to years of investigation shared with her husband into the agricultural problems of the East -- she came to love India and never felt so well as when she was in that country. She had enormous capacity for patient detail and carried out a very large part of the finer minutiae of plant breeding with her own hands in the area of the Botanical Section at Pusa, at Quetta, and at Indore; with this she combined, what is rarer, a comprehensive insight into and grasp of fundamental principle. Indeed, her mind was masterly and energetic, as was shown in a smaller way in her ability to run her Indian household to perfection in the intervals of her scientific labours, to the astonishment of the ladies of the Station, who prophesied either a complete breakdown in household arrangements or at least sunstroke from so many hours spent in the field. But her chosen way of life gave her supreme happiness and her comradeship in investigation with her husband was perfect. Their combined power of work was colossal nor could the results of their efforts ever be disentangled, as they themselves stated to me on more than one occasion. In due course Gabrielle Howard received the almost unknown distinction of being recognized by the proud and conservative administration of India for an official appointment. She was first Personal Assistant and then Second Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India. These rather ugly titles were replaced in popular parlance by the current description of the two investigators as 'the Sidney Webbs of India', and a few years later The Times summed up the partnership by stating that 'seldom in the sphere of economic investigation has there been a more fruitful collaboration between husband and wife than that of Mr. Albert Howard, for many years Imperial Economic Botanist at the Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, and Mrs. Howard.' (Trade and Engineering Supplement, 5th May 1921.)

This initial advantage of the perfect marriage partnership, allied with the right age, good health, a cheerful disposition, and the wonderfully useful heritage of a farming boyhood, together with confidence in his capacity to carry out scientific discovery, was counterbalanced on arrival at Pusa by some disadvantages. The Botanical Section was the last to be formed and Sir Albert's appointment was slightly later than other appointments. Any who have had to do with official scrambles for such things as equipment and location will appreciate that this Section got the worst served. This was of importance in one respect; land on which to grow the crops to be investigated was stated already to be taken up and in any case not necessary for a worker deputed to deal with plants and not with the soil, which was to be the duty of another Section, thus at the outset laying down the vicious principle of departmentalism. Sir Albert embarked on the first of many tussles with officialdom, prophetic of a long fighting career, to obtain seventy-five acres for the furtherance of his experiments, convinced as he already was that work confined to the test tube and the walls of the laboratory was useless to the agricultural botanist; his later cruel phrase -- 'the laboratory hermit' -- was his own and not borrowed from another speaker. Possibly this early attempt at refusing him a facility essential to good work stimulated his natural obstinacy. He was the first to acknowledge help received from superiors whom he respected, notably men like Sir Reginald Glancy, Lord Meston, and Mr. Bernard Coventry, but any suspicion that he was being met by mere obstructionism roused the lion. His official Minutes could be devastating and even more so his self-confident refusal to waste time on unnecessary administrative minutiae. That 'amiable brutality' which became so characteristic later was well known and feared by many in the ranks of the Indian Civil Service.

On the other hand, his relations with the nationals of India, which seldom involved the boredom or vexations of official routine, gave ample scope to the opposite trait of kindness and good humour, which was no less inherent in him than his obstinacy. He possessed throughout his life and in a supreme degree the happy capacity to enter immediately into pleasant fellowship with any human being. This genius for human intercourse clearly derived from his great honesty, sincerity and cheerfulness, which were recognizable within the first few minutes of conversation; the rather marked lack of what might be called an awareness of conventional social limitations made him equally at home with the cultivators and the Princes of India, with the workman mending his fence at Blackheath or the member of the House of Lords. No doubt many possess this quality and it is the usual endowment of a mind sufficiently open to be above social restrictions; it is noted here because it deeply affected and helped Sir Albert as a scientific worker and had a most important bearing on the character of his work. It was because he was honest enough and humble enough to note what the Bihar peasants were doing, what the Baluchistan tribesmen grew and how they grew it, because he loved talking to West Indian planters and Kentish hopgrowers, to a Westmorland smallholder equally with a French millionaire wishing to purchase a million hectares in the Sahara, that all who cultivated the earth's surface, of whatever calibre, or education, or station, became his instructors: he was able to learn from all because he wanted to learn from all. More especially did he acknowledge the lessons to be got from the century-old experience of the Indian peasants, whom in later life he most happily named his 'professors'. In one ostensibly paid to teach a predominantly illiterate population it was an unusual point of view.

Work at Pusa and Quetta

The first eighteen years of appointment were spent at Pusa, already mentioned as the Agricultural Research Institute founded by Lord Curzon to serve the needs of Indian agriculture. This important Station brought together a corps of British scientists of considerable but varying merit, each in charge of a separate Section and responsible to a Director and through him to the Department of Agriculture. It was an advantage that these scientists were instructed to be in contact with the Provincial research officers already at work and to give and receive information. Immediately on arrival Sir Albert was sent on a tour of the Provincial botanical gardens and areas, a very useful undertaking, which gave him a bird's-eye view of Indian flora; many other journeys followed in the course of the early years; even the honeymoon had been spent in part on touring. When he started work Sir Albert was also responsible for reporting annually on the results obtained throughout the country by the agricultural research officers attached to the Provincial governments. In this way a wide and comprehensive grasp of tropical plant problems was built up and, what was equally important, personal relations with other workers in the same field were begun. Sir Albert was fortunate in securing the lifelong friendship of Mr. George Clarke, C.I.E. , Dr. H. Martin-Leake, and Mr. Fairlie Watson, O.B.E. In general, the feeling that he was appointed to serve the whole of India with its immense populations and vast possibilities was very stimulating to him. He responded at once, and from that time on conceived a great distaste for any parochial or localized outlook, beginning to see agricultural problems for what they truly are -- world problems of universal import.

This broad outlook made him impatient of the restrictions at Pusa. If the work was to be imperial and the staff put in a front-ranking position, it was a most unfortunate mistake to have selected a location, uncommonly isolated and to which access was most inconvenient and awkward. This was an error stigmatized at all costs to be avoided when in later years Sir Albert sketched the conditions for his ideal Research Station. The following passage puts the argument cogently. It refers to the Station created by Sir Albert himself at Indore.

These words were written with the difficulties at Pusa vividly in mind. It had been only too obvious that the Pusa scientists and their families had far too limited opportunities for social intercourse; there was no relief from the weariness of the same faces day after day. The Howards were so busy in their work -- the wife equally with the husband -- that they had devoted the minimum of time to social engagements. This, incidentally, in so restricted a group had not added to their popularity, while with the others they themselves had suffered from the monotony of the Station entourage.

But the work offered every possible stimulus and excitement. It started with a most important project, the improvement of the wheats of India. The success of this work is described in the next chapter. So essential did Government consider the wheat programme that there was initially a suggestion not to assign Sir Albert to the general botanical work of the Pusa Institute, but to make him a specialist officer on wheat only; fortunately, this suggestion was dropped. At the same time, investigation was at once started on a number of other crops, and many kinds of fruit trees planted; all this experience proved invaluable and formed the basis of much future research. An initial practical success was registered in eliminating the plague of the flax dodder, which had unfortunately been imported into India. The vigorous and sensible advice given by the new Imperial Economic Botanist was carefully followed by the Bihar planters and the danger disappeared (1908). This was no doubt encouraging.

Otherwise the early years were divided between intensive botanical studies of varieties -- the proper work of the plant breeder -- and learning how to grow the crops which were to be thus subject to examination. The first ten years of work may be said to have had this double aspect. The botanical studies were foreseen in the appointment and are distinguished by the very fundamental character which they had to assume. Practically nothing of a satisfactory kind had been done on the sorting out of the varieties of many tropical crops and the Howards found themselves compelled to go back to the beginning and undertake an enormous amount of work in classifying wheat, tobacco, linseed, gram, fibres and other crops; the work on tobacco was undertaken by Mrs. Howard and eventually gave rise to four long and elaborate monographs. Later her work was repeated by the U. S. A. Federal research authorities and confirmed in every respect. In such work the Howards joined the international body of scientists who were working on Mendelian principles.

From the very beginning it was decided that the crops to be investigated must be grown on a field scale. It was for this purpose that the seventy-five acres had been fought for. At once the investigators were plunged into practical difficulties of cultivation, which had to be solved alongside the plant-breeding work. In undertaking to grow the crops to be improved Sir Albert may be said to have given himself a number of unusual problems. The plant-breeding work was assigned to him: his other tasks he found for himself.

The first practical essay was to arrange an ingenious system of irrigation for the fruit trees planted; this furrow irrigation was a great improvement on current methods (1908). But there were more serious problems. The fields at Pusa were wet and subject both to surface flooding and to the dangerous effects of the rise of the subsoil waters during the monsoon. A careful system of field contouring (the 'shaping' of fields), accompanied by well-devised surface drains, all work carried out by manual labour and with the tools at hand, proved a contribution of the utmost value to Indian agriculture, and would alone have justified Sir Albert's appointment. The system eventually was copied over a large part of India. This initial work led directly to a prolonged study of soil aeration. Here the Howards were pioneers and broke entirely new ground in tropical investigation. As time went on, they attributed more and more importance to this question, which in their opinion was at the root of much under-cultivation in India. They foresaw enormous possibilities of increased production if attention could be directed to soil aeration. It was from the aeration studies that the later theory of disease resistance took its birth.

In another direction also most useful practical work was started at an early stage. The investigations on tobacco, as well as some of the investigations on wheat, involved some application of the methods of green-manuring current in Bihar. An innovation was tried and it was soon found that manuring with a specially sown crop of green sann was far less expensive than manuring with oil-cake or the residue of the indigo plant, seeth; by the new method, in spite of wet seasons, very good crops of tobacco, far superior to any in the neighbourhood, were produced (1911-12). This pointed to more enquiry into the subject of green-manuring generally, and the way lay open to the study of soil fertility.

In May 1910, after five years' work at Pusa, a step was taken which was symptomatic of the energy, vigour, and initiative of the Howards. Mr. Fairlie Watson has left it on record that the inspiration which impelled Sir Albert to spend the half-year only of the growing season at Pusa, and then to rush off his seed and transfer himself and his wife for the other six months to Quetta in the Baluchistan desert was 'a stroke of genius'. (Soil and Health Memorial Number, 1948, p. 29.) A special Station was here opened, and Sir Albert had the advantage of being in sole charge. Wheat and fruit, including tomatoes, were grown with great success. The arrangements implied the most strenuous work. Two crops of wheat were grown in one year, at Pusa and at Quetta, which meant that the period required for breeding new varieties was exactly halved. This accounts for the rapid advance in the wheat-breeding programme between the years 1910 and 1916.

But if by his own act Sir Albert deliberately doubled his task, he reaped the advantage of a further widening of his outlook. The work at Quetta was very different from the work at Pusa; only one thing was the same -- the knowledge to be gained by the usual lessons of observation in watching the hill tribesmen as he had patiently taught himself to watch the ryot of the Bihar plains. It was in Kashmir that Sir Albert noted vines sprawling in low trenches in a way which seemed inevitably to invite mildew and yet escaping all trace of disease because grown on ancient methods of soil conservation, a fact which impressed itself deeply on his mind. Otherwise the technique to be applied was entirely different, desert conditions being encountered. At Pusa the problem had been the waterlogging of fields, to be overcome by clever drainage; at Quetta the fields had to receive their irrigation water before they could bear. This led to prolonged investigations on irrigation, which somehow fitted in remarkably with those on drainage and aeration of the soil and proved to be a logical continuation of these. Most unusual conclusions were reached, of far-reaching importance, providing something like a sensation among the authorities, as in India irrigation problems are also revenue problems.

Quetta is an important military station and residence there brought contact with the army. Two very useful pieces of work were added to the main projects of wheat and fruit, namely, the drying of vegetables for men on the march and the drying of fodder for army transport mules; the nature of the military operations in the districts comprised in the North-west frontier made these supply questions of unusual importance and much difficulty had been experienced. The improvements were great; it was estimated, for example, that a week's supply of vegetables for a thousand men could now be accommodated on the backs of two mules only.

Long before this the position of the Howards as leading investigators on tropical agriculture had been established. The phenomenal success of the Pusa wheats left the computators behind. Track could not be kept of the way in which they were spreading; the demand for seed far exceeded the supply. They were in demand by scientists and growers in the most distant parts of the world and were despatched to Burma, Java, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, the Soudan, the Argentine, Canada, and France; in Australia, at the Sydney agricultural shows, they won first prizes several years running. They were mentioned in Parliament as an argument justifying the expenditure of more money on agricultural research. (Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, H. of C., 14th August 1917. Hansard, H. of C., Vol. 97, No. 116, c. 1008.) Sir Albert himself, when on leave, attended the Mark Lane and Liverpool corn exchanges and had the felicity of hearing his wheats described as 'equal to any in the world'; the formal reports from the British milling industry were conceived in the most flattering terms; the milling and baking tests were more than satisfactory. If anything more were needed, it was supplied by the reports on fibre, sent in by the head of one of the biggest firms in these products in the world, describing the sample supplied as 'the best specimen of fibre from the Hibiscus cannabinus plant which has ever been submitted to me', capable of being sold 'in almost unlimited quantities'.

It could not be surprising that the Indian public responded to these successes. In a subsequent chapter it is stated that Sir Albert would never agree that the peoples of India did not know how to make full use of the improvements offered to them. Almost from the beginning the wealthier and the ruling classes followed his lead. They did more: they supported and assisted his work. His suggestion to hold the Tirhoot Agricultural Exhibition at Pusa itself and show the actual growing of crops in situ set up immediate intimate relations with the Bihar planters, who offered to take over some of the work of growing wheat seed under his supervision; this sensible and generous suggestion, which was useful to both parties, was accepted (1911). He had already been asked to visit Kashmir and report on the hop industry, on general agricultural development, and on agricultural education (August-September 1910). (A brief notice of the reports, which were not publicly issued, in Report of the Imperial Economic Botanist for the Year 1910-11, pp. 5-7. The last subject could not be dealt with.) Following on his representations to the Administration in Baluchistan, the irrigation policy there was revised. In 1917 the Maharajah of Kapurthala asked for the loan of his services, and the creation of an Agricultural Department and a State Development Fund was the result of his advice. Bhopal was visited in 1921 and other advisory work undertaken in these years. Many of the Hill States, the Central Indian States, and other States adopted the new wheats and the new methods. Assisted by the Provincial officers, themselves highly trained and able scientists, Sir Albert was able to lead India, both British India and the Indian States, a huge step forward in the direction of supplying her peoples with their daily bread.

A most unusual feature of the work was the intrusion into marketing. Here Sir Albert's inherent business capacity came into play. He knew it was no use to grow grains, seeds, fodders, fibres, fruit, tobaccos, indigo, vegetables, unless these products reached the consumer or the merchant in good condition and at reasonable prices; he realized further that it was the scientist's duty to fit himself into current trade requirements where these had been established over a long period and on a stable basis. An investigation of local methods of storage of grains convinced him that these were rather more efficient for the home consumer than was currently supposed, but when it came to the export trade in grains he did not spare his criticisms of the haphazard, mixed, and unclean character of the Indian shipments of wheat, which pushed such consignments to the bottom of the markets. Again, with the launching of the new Pusa wheats, the greatest care was taken to think out successful principles of seed distribution. Owing to the risks of cross-pollination throughout the country the only successful plan was to insist on substituting a new variety over the whole of each selected area, until such improved variety dominated. This was therefore arranged. The same principle was advised for cotton and other partly cross-pollinating crops.

It was, however, in investigating the fruit marketing position at Quetta that Sir Albert found the best opportunity for the exercise of his great practical abilities. His success is described in a subsequent chapter. The beautiful fruits and tomatoes grown in the high arid area of the Baluchistan desert were able to reach the great cities of India, after a journey of nearly 2, 000 miles, in perfect condition, so admirable were the baskets, crates, and containers invented for the purpose and so efficient the training of the Indian staff in good methods of wrapping and packing.

In the course of these successes certain honours and promotions were earned. After five years' work as a volunteer Gabrielle Howard, as already stated, received her first official appointment as personal assistant to her husband in 1910; the honour of the Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal, at that time rarely given to a woman, was conferred in 1913, and she was advanced to the rank of Second Imperial Economic Botanist. In 1914 the Companionship of the Indian Empire (C.I.E. ) was given to Sir Albert. In 1918 two special silver medals were conferred at the Calcutta Food Products Exhibition. In January 1919 the Viceroy paid an official visit to the Pusa Research Institute and it was reported that he could not be got to leave the fascinations of the Botanical Section, where there was so much to be shown to him. The silver medal of the Royal Society of Arts in London followed in 1920, and the Barclay Memorial Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1930.

Meanwhile the Howards were taking a leading part in founding the Indian Science Congress in 1914, a vigorous body which met annually for scientific discussions. In 1923 the Howards contributed no less than five separate papers to the discussions, Gabrielle Howard being in that year President of the Section of Botany, and in 1929 President of the Section of Agriculture and Chairman of the Joint Sections of Botany and Agriculture; in 1926 Sir Albert was elected President of the whole Congress, a position which would probably have been conferred on his wife had she lived a few years longer.

Problems of Agricultural Research in India

An opportunity came, when the work at Pusa and at Quetta was drawing to a close, to give a summing up of the situation. This took the form of two lectures delivered to the Royal Society of Arts on 16th and 23rd July 1920. For these lectures the silver medal of the Society was awarded, as already stated.

In these lectures two independent topics are combined in that easy and lucid fashion which became so characteristic of Sir Albert's later work, namely, a summary analysis of Indian agriculture and a sketch of the ideal qualifications which should be exhibited by any scientist seeking to serve communities like the Indian peoples. Almost all the points on which Sir Albert later insisted so vehemently are included: the need for the most complete understanding of, and regard to be paid to, climatic conditions: for sympathetic and wise consideration of peasant mentality and intelligence: for respect for an empiric knowledge of cultivation methods accumulated in the course of several thousand years of tradition and experience: the care necessary in launching among such cultivators, or indeed among any cultivators, the results of Experiment Station research: finally, the pronouncedly critical note rejecting the application to agriculture of mathematical principles ('the score-card method') and the confidence which places the individual researcher as leader high above the trammels of systems of organization. The salient passages of these discourses are here appended. They embody the knowledge gained after fifteen years of intensive effort.

Four years later, in a small book written for students of Indian conditions, Sir Albert re-emphasized the difference between academic research and work for practical ends. The warning note is even more emphatic and it is pointed out that the economic situation is dominant and that scientific advance is inevitably limited by the condition of the country.

Wider Ideas

Perhaps what has most interested me in reading my husband's many papers from India is to find embodied in them from time to time the enunciation, often quite definite, of the new ideas which, linked up later and shown to be each an item in a comprehensive conception of what agriculture should be and what agriculture should conform to, are now popularly known as the teachings of 'organic husbandry'. Most of the doctrine which we of the Organic School stand for appear in these papers, with the one exception that no objection is as yet stated to the use of artificial fertilizers. (But see passage quoted at the end of Chapter 3. The subject is discussed in Chapter VIII.) There is intense and ever-repeated emphasis on observation in the field. This advice comes again and again and the importance attributed to it does not lessen with the years. Yet if their habit of patiently focusing their attention on what was to be seen with the eyes imprinted on the minds of the two investigators a lasting impression of the significance of Eastern agriculture, they could not depend on this alone. Their intellectual heritage was from the West: observation would have been useless without prolonged scientific training. It was at Cambridge and not in India that other inspirations were born. That master conception of the whole plant, as a live thing, knowing no divisions of science but 'in carrying out its functions using all', simultaneously and obstinately a problem for chemist, botanist, physicist, entomologist, mycologist, and micro-biologist, who, unless they are willing, in their separate investigations, to keep a regard for the whole organism confronting them will never penetrate very deeply into its mysteries, that conception comes early, from Gabrielle Howard and not from Sir Albert, in a letter written in haste from Newnham College during their engagement, evidently in relation to some scheme of work which he had sent to her. She writes hurriedly, without commas, rather frankly, but sure of her ground. The letter, though simple, is so interesting as the first expression of this all-important idea, that I reproduce it here.

It is interesting that this idea should have been enunciated thus early and with such simple clarity. It did not immediately affect the work; the wheat-breeding campaign was carried out on formal botanical principles. The same is true of some other studies, on tobacco, for instance. But it was not long before that habit of observation, already mentioned, gave a definite extension to enquiry. When the baffling problem of indigo wilt was handed over to the Howards -- it had eluded the efforts of four or five other departments -- there was nothing for it but to plunge into the whole history of this plant, above and below ground. When once this step was taken, the way was marked out for all future investigation.

Research was pushed below ground to the roots and root systems of all crops studied; the Howards were pioneers in India in drawing attention to the need for doing this. It may seem incredible that such studies of one whole half of the plant should have been neglected, but in fact agricultural botanists were commonly satisfied to examine foliage, flower, and fruit and to leave it at that. The Howards came to make a habit of careful examination of the roots of their crops at all stages of growth, a practice which helped them to solve some intricate and difficult problems. The most prolonged investigations were the ten years' detailed work on the roots of eight varieties of fruit trees, pursued by means of an adapted knapsack sprayer to anything from ten to forty feet below ground. Such studies, though now a commonplace, were then most original, and enabled Sir Albert to prove so intimate a connection between the state of the soil and the life of the tree as more than justified his first use of the happy phrase, 'the gearing together' of plant and soil, in the paper presented to the Royal Society on 'The Effect of Grass on Trees' (1925).

The work on root systems had throughout been inextricably bound up with the supremely important problems of aeration and drainage of the soil. That Sir Albert should have been led from a contemplation of the plant into a contemplation of the medium in which it grew -- the soil -- was inevitable unless he was to put himself in blinkers, but -- it was an undeniable departure from the strict botanical field. It made for a point of view infinitely wider than that given to the systematic or even the economic botanist. From that time onwards Sir Albert was altogether unable to separate plant from soil; the soil came within his vision as the great originator of all things growing or alive, as 'Mother Earth', the nurse of life and mistress of decay.

The final great step forward in the investigation of the plant as a living organism was to note its enemies, the diseases and the pests, but not in order to hand them over to the mycologists and entomologists, rather to do the exact opposite, to bring to light the vital connection between their attacks and the condition of the plant itself. A good many years passed before the idea was definitely formulated, in a paper contributed to an English journal at home. (Annals of Applied Biology, Vol. VII, 1921.) By 1926, in the Presidential Address to the Indian Science Congress, the idea is firmly laid down that prevention must be by growing healthy crops, capable of resisting their destroyers.

Gradually there came to be something like a shifting of emphasis. Not that the Howards wished to dissociate themselves from the advances of orthodox science, rather that a parallel and increasing interest was awakening in what age-old tradition and practice could offer: the solid achievements of an ancient culture emerged in their imaginations as an integral part of the agricultural complex. As President of the Indian Science Congress just mentioned Sir Albert was bold enough to suggest to his fellow workers in the research field that practice could teach a great deal to science. The mighty contribution made to human living by the peasant agriculture of the East, in spite of many inadequacies and weaknesses, began to make a kind of pattern in his mind.

The Creation of the Indore Institute of Plant Industry

In summing-up the work done at Pusa and Quetta towards the end of his service with the Department of Agriculture in India, Sir Albert took an occasion to reckon up the money value of what had been achieved. He had a special object in view -- to counter the campaign for financial stringency, known as the 'Geddes axe', from the name of two highly placed Government officials who, after the First World War, were deputed to cut down expenditure at home and throughout the Empire. At that time the additional income accruing to India from improvements in wheats, tobacco, and fruits alone was estimated at well over a million and a quarter pounds per year; this, as Sir Albert was at pains to point out, was twenty-nine times the total cost of the Botanical Section during its existence from 1905 to 1922, or 315 times its current annual expenditure. Moreover, these figures made no reckoning of the incalculable profits which would arise out of the investigations on many other crops and above all from improvements in method. (Work done by the Botanical Section, Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, from May, 1905 to January, 1923. Further figures for wheat are given in Chapter 2.)

By that time ninety-three published papers or books had appeared under the signature of the Howards and eleven others were in the press. (By 1929 there were 128 papers or books in all.) The Botanical Section was openly credited with having contributed more to the development of Indian agriculture than any other Section at Pusa, with having taken the lead in research work throughout India, with having stimulated research everywhere on sound lines, broadened its basis and succeeded in fostering the intelligent interest of Government and the public in the work of the Agricultural Department. (Letter of 2nd December 1919 from Mr. Bernard Coventry, C.I.E., one time Director of the Pusa Research Institute, to Sir Albert Howard [text printed in Work done by the Botanical Section, Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, from May, 1905 to January, 1923.])

This had not been done without some controversy. It was unquestionably at Pusa that Sir Albert began to feel that revolt against 'fragmentation' of knowledge which in later life made him so impatient of orthodox research. He was accused of invading fields not his own, and a study of his published papers must largely confirm the truth of this accusation. In fact, his intelligence was too powerful to fit into his environment and towards the end of his Pusa career he felt completely out of the picture and thoroughly impatient and rebellious. That freedom 'which is so essential to the scientific investigation of economic questions' was hopelessly stultified by the Pusa departmentalism, and the Howards actually went so far as to stigmatize the current organization of agricultural research there as 'obsolete'. A very deep dissatisfaction is made plain in this unqualified statement. They added that, as it is impossible to change any organization from within, the only thing to do was to create something new; and freedom of action was at length secured when Sir Albert was appointed first director of a new Institute of Plant Industry at Indore, which was to be planned, built, and organized entirely on lines indicated by himself.

The basis of research was obviously to be investigation directed to the whole existence of a selected crop, namely, 'the plant itself in relation to the soil in which it grows, to the conditions of village agriculture under which it is cultivated, and with reference to the economic uses of the product'; in other words, research was to be integral, never fragmented. It was very unfortunate that there should have been a delay of five years, from 1919 to 1924, in the plan originally sanctioned for creating the new Institute. This delay was due to the Geddes axe mentioned above. Indeed, had not the Central Cotton Committee stepped in to vote two lacs of rupees for capital expenditure and one lac thereafter for recurring annual costs,the proposed venture would never have materialized. This offer was supplemented by the generosity of the Indian States of Central India and Rajputana. The Darbar of the State of Indore offered 300 acres of land for ninety-nine years at a nominal rent, supplementing this later with the loan of valuable buildings; seven other States agreed to support the Institute, the Director of the Institute to continue the advisory services which for some time past had been at their disposal under Mr. Bernard Coventry, C.I.E.; in fact, the Institute arose out of that previous work.

Under these arrangements the financing of agricultural research passed away from Government and was undertaken by a commercial body, the moneys being obtained from the 'cess' or small tax on every bale of cotton leaving India. The Howards express approval of this principle as leaving more autonomy to any given research undertaking and as an answer to the reproach that in India and the Empire generally all work was carried on and paid for by official agency and not, as in Western countries, by autonomous bodies supported by independent benefactions, such independence allowing of far more intimate relations between research workers and the farming world and also encouraging easier and more rapid development than is possible under the strictness of bureaucratic control. (At the Indore institute the Government of India was so far interested in that the Agent to the Governor-General at Indore was ex-officio Chairman of the Board of Governors; the accounts of the Institute were also government-audited for the first few years, until Sir Albert obtained permission to substitute a commercial audit.) The point is noted because since that date the trend in the home countries has been entirely in the opposite direction, agricultural research now being government-sponsored and very definitely directed from above.

Work on planning and design was begun on 24th October 1924, but years of thought had preceded; the amount of care put into every detail by the Howards was tremendous; they were responsible for the whole lay-out. On 25th February 1925 actual construction started and a very beautiful set of buildings, both farm buildings and extensive laboratories, a library and a model village, were created, but it was characteristic not to wait for the completion of any material structure but to sow the first crop of cotton at once, in June of that year. Within the next three years eight more States joined in the scheme, bringing the total number of States interested to sixteen. The Institute was to include in its programme the training of post-graduate students and in general was to be 'an object lesson' for advance in the whole of that part of India; the authorities of the contributing States were to be able to 'see for themselves how their dominions could be developed'. Thus the guiding principle of the closest contact between research and those to be served was at once stressed; there was repudiation of the conventional isolation and withdrawal of research staff into the sacred precincts of some laboratory where none could follow; it was also at Indore, where Sir Albert was able, as an independent director, to follow the instincts of his own generous nature, that a most notable experiment in applying progressive principles in the management of Indian labour was worked out. It was, however, especially with a view to the interests of the higher staff that a site was chosen quite close to the city of Indore. The arguments have already been referred to which point out how great is the mistake which places the research worker away from an ordinary social centre; they need not therefore be repeated here.

Although the offers of the Central Cotton Committee and of the Indian States had been generous, money for buildings was somewhat limited; Sir Albert laments the lack of an extra half-lac of rupees for capital expenditure which would have provided thicker walls to keep down temperatures and wider verandas. The expense of director's quarters was saved, the old Residency being lent by the State for the purpose. The model village for some of the staff included also nine furnished quarters for visiting officers from the States and six for visiting cultivators; these were constantly occupied and were all part of the general idea of keeping in the closest possible touch with the people and showing the work to all who could be sent to see it. The farm buildings themselves were designed with the greatest care and proved completely successful; indeed, they became a model for various demonstration farms started by the contributing States. They were sited in the centre of the area.

If it was an asset to start from the beginning and to design one's own buildings, the uncultivated state of the land was another matter. It was, of course, much to have 300 acres instead of the 75 at Pusa, which with the expansion of work over the years had proved altogether inadequate and hampering, to have twenty pair of oxen instead of six. Rut the land was in a very bad state, rough and undrained, one-third of it so badly waterlogged that it had been abandoned by cultivators, infested with an almost ineradicable weed, kans, and scored with erosion nullahs, due to run-off from the higher ground. Drains were laid on an Italian model to deal with the latter evil; then roads with bridges and culverts made, eventually to an extent of 20,062 feet, though the final area assigned to this work, together with buildings and all non-agricultural uses, was less than 5 percent of the total. With the making of the roads the opportunity was seized for a visual demonstration, for each road and area was grass-bordered, in the manner which had been so successful at Pusa; protected by their grass borders each field was separately shaped on a gentle slope rising in the middle to drain towards the edge. This work occupied a long time and was not finished until 1930. But the results at once aroused the keenest interest and officers of the States were eager to apply it to their villages. Only a very simple leveller was used, which could be drawn by a pair of oxen; the Indian peasant proved singularly capable of doing exact grading with the simplest means, his instinct and eye being the surest of guides. Not only was he thus directly benefited, but the system held other advantages.

Although the whole Station in the course of a very few years came to stand out from the neighbouring countryside 'like a green jewel', yet the self-denying resolution was taken to use no power other than what an ordinary well-to-do Indian cultivator could command. The small machines employed, levellers, threshers, fodder-cutters, and feed-grinders, could be worked either by a simple oil engine or by bullock power. (An exception was made for the machinery needed in the ginning factory; this was an essential part of the experimental work, but not part of any cultivator's duties.) This unusual decision at the outset put the Howards face to face with a severe problem -- the eradication of two most troublesome weeds, kans (Saccharum spontaneum L.) and kunda (Ischaemum pilosum Hack. Monogr.), but more especially of the first. Kans is a weed which has a terrific root system, thick underground rhizomes, which grows very rapidly in the rains and is capable of putting fields wholly out of cultivation; indeed, areas were not infrequently abandoned 'when kans was master'. This weed was rampant on the Experiment Station area when it was taken over in 1925.

How to deal with this pest, on the terms laid down, was a problem. The solution was found in an American ridging plough, from which the wings and sole were removed, which could be drawn by two pair of oxen abreast on a single yoke -- this concentration of power was found sufficient. The 'Kans Erradicating Outfit', as it was called, was exhibited at the Poona Agricultural Exhibition in October 1926; it attracted immediate attention, was improved, cheapened, and came to be one of the most successful initiatives launched from Indore. (An additional effect was that the deep cultivation bringing better soil areation so improved the crop of cotton that the plants made twice the ordinary growth.) It was sold to cultivators direct from the Station, together with a number of other simple improved appliances or tools. These had at first been obtained for Institute purposes, and no one had foreseen how instantly popular they would become by being used in front of visitors. The demand was such that the very unusual step was taken of setting up a separate trading account apart from the Institute budget, for the purchase and sale of implements. This commercial venture was financially successful.

Another harassing problem was surmounted in the feeding of cattle. The months of the hot weather see the cattle of India half-starved. During the first half-year even the Institute animals suffered. There was no green food for them at all and they had to subsist on an unsuitable diet of dried stuff. The solution was found in the following years in the growing of green fodder for silage, to be used during the dry months. The details of silaging the indigenous crop, juar, were perfected during the years 1927 and 1928, and it was further planned to teach the cultivators to grow lucerne. The way was led at the Institute itself, with the result that the cattle, which had had 'to be kept in the background', by 1927 were in such wonderful condition that they could be exhibited as type specimens of their breed and were in request for religious processions. In the course of two years these adult animals had been 'transformed', and Sir Albert asks the pertinent question as to what might not have been the results of similar treatment on younger beasts. In later years Sir Albert repeated his advocacy of silaging as the obvious remedy in all hot countries for dry-season shortage of grass.

Thus in every way the Institute was proving the thesis that no mere improvement of varieties of crops should suffice to fill the programme of the research worker in agricultural botany. Ten per cent of increased yield might perhaps be looked for from such variety work, but what was that when measured against 'the enormous increment made possible by better agricultural conditions'? All circumstances affecting the plant's growth and life history must be taken into account, nor was anything alien to the botanist's duties which bore on the final picture. Consonant with this was the determination to take up at Indore the study of the enemies of plants -- diseases and pests. It was at Indore that the idea became most clearly formulated which traced the arrival of a disease or pest as the final symptom of a breakdown in the plant's resistance due to adverse soil conditions. The following few words are illuminating as showing the wonderful standard of crop growing which had been achieved on this originally derelict land in the amazingly short space of four years.

The setting up of the Indore Institute undoubtedly profited from the long experience at Pusa and at Quetta; as Sir Albert states, this was not really the first, but the third, experimental botanical area which he had had to create. The key notes were two: the study of the whole crop within its environment, and the care and attention paid to the duty of conveying results to those to be served. The ideas appeared sufficiently novel to justify the writing of an account:, which appeared in 1929 under the title The Application of Science to Crop Production. The wide nature of the title betrays the hope that the Indore Institute would not remain the sole venture of its kind, but might lead to something like a reform in Experiment Station management, might indeed, in the words of Professor Engledow (now, Sir Frank Engledow), provide 'a rare and valuable guide for future undertakings'. (Review of the book mentioned in the text in Nature, 1924, 1929, p. 974.) It is doubtful whether this hope has ever been realized or whether enough attention has been given to what was so excellently conceived and planned.

Final Investigations on Composting and Retirement

The work planned at Indore was to have included, on a comprehensive scale, variety investigations in cotton similar to those so successful in wheat. These were started and some interesting results obtained. But time was running short. Sir Albert was already a pensioned official, although this did not deter him from continuing his work. Of greater moment was the fact that his wife's health necessitated treatment under European doctors. She had the work so greatly at heart that she could not contemplate relaxation, and was writing and planning new projects within a week or two of her death, which took place while on leave at Geneva in August 1930.

This severe blow brought the great partnership to an end. Though Sir Albert returned from Geneva to Indore and was pressed to continue his work he could not face the prospect. The future was indeed to prove that there would be years of strenuous endeavour in front of him, a period calling for at least as much vigour as the years in the East. But for the time being he could only wind up current affairs and hand on to a new Director.

It is to be attributed to his sense of duty to the peoples of India, a sense of duty which was straightforward, business-like, and unsentimental, that he should have made up his mind to complete one final task. This was the analysis and description of a problem which had been in the back of his mind for years.

The very success of the breeding of wheats had early raised the problem of whether the soils of India could stand the extra strain imposed by improved varieties of crops. Sir Albert's estimate has already been quoted: that a better variety of a crop might yield, say, 10 per cent of increase, but the better cultivation of that variety anything up to another 90 per cent. How was such better cultivation to be achieved in India where three-quarters of the cow-dung needed for raising soil fertility was being put to non-agricultural uses as fuel, etc.?

Sir Albert had for many years investigated the practices of green-manuring carried out by the Indian cultivators, but a further step was needed. It had always been a matter of simple observation, an experiment, as he says, repeated many thousand times over, to notice the intensely fertile belt round any Indian village, due to the depositing of night-soil, as contrasted with the much poorer fields beyond. This gave an obvious clue. He had intended to visit the Far East to study on the spot the age-old systems of soil replenishment -- the systems of composting -- practiced in China and Japan but not known in India. The World War, the effort of creating the Indore Institute, and other circumstances had intervened, but enough information was got together from various sources, F. H. King's famous book, The Farmers of Forty Centuries, proving a great inspiration. Previous experiments for the treatment of organic wastes had engaged his serious attention from time to time; at Indore he systematized the work and deputed Mr. Yeshwant Wad, a member of his staff, to handle the chemical side. The experiments were very thorough. The principles of composting are sometimes believed to have sprung complete out of Sir Albert's mind, like an Athene out of the head of Zeus, as it were by a sudden inspiration. The reverse is the case. The work was developed slowly and along with the experiments went a testing of results in the field. Eventually 1,000 carts of compost were being made at Indore each year, and the extraordinary fertility of the Experiment Station area was the visual proof of its value.

To convey this lesson to India became Sir Albert's last duty. With all the work of leaving the country, winding up an official appointment, and breaking up a household in front of him, without the ever-present help of his wife, Sir Albert could only make time by rising at four, or even three o'clock every morning at the cost of an extreme physical effort even for so strong a man: The Waste Products of Agriculture: their Utilization as Humus got itself written and was barely completed when the author took ship at Bombay in a state of such prostration as to alarm his cabin companion. This book, the subject-matter of which is discussed below in Chapter VI, came to be a valuable last gift of science to the peoples of India; the work of composting both town and village wastes in that country has since been initiated on a nation-wide scale by the Government of India under Dr. A. C. Acharya, D.Sc.

That it was destined also to become the starting point of a new outlook in world agriculture could not, at that time, have been foreseen. It will probably remain for many years one of the most signal and successful instances of the marriage of Western knowledge to Eastern wisdom. It was indeed a most fitting conclusion to so brilliant a career.


Principal Sources for Sir Albert Howard's Work in India

Wheat in India: Its Production, Varieties, and Improvement.
Published for the Imperial Department of Agriculture in India by Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, 1909, pp, 288.

Crop Production in India: A Critical Survey of its Problems. Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 200.

Indian Agriculture (in the series India of To-day). Oxford University Press, 1927, pp. 98.

The Application of Science to Crop Production: An Experiment carried out at the Institute of Plant Industry, Indore. Oxford University Press, 1929, pp. 81.

The Waste Products of Agriculture: Their Utilization as Humus (together with Yeshwant D. Wad). Oxford University Press, 1931, pp. 167.

Reports of the Board of Scientific Advice for India, for the Years 1907-15, sections on 'Economic Botany'. Calcutta.

Reports of the Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India for the Years 1910-13, and of the Imperial Economic Botanists, etc., for the Years 1914-23. Calcutta.

Work done by the Botanical Section of the Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, from May to January 1923 (document privately printed).

Journ. of the Roy. Soc. of Arts, Vol. LXVIII, Nos. 3530 and 3531, 16th and 23rd July, 1920: 'The Improvement of Crop Production in India'. London.

The Memoirs of the Department of Agriculture in India (Botanical Series), the Bulletins of the Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, and of the Fruit Experiment Station, Quetta, the articles in the Agricultural Journal of India, and in a number of other periodicals, are mentioned, as relevant, at the end of each chapter of the present book. A complete list of the papers published by Albert and Gabrielle Howard up to 1929 is given in The Application of Science to Crop Production in India, pp. 62-7.

The above sources, which are out of print, available only in scientific libraries.

Also, and still available:

An Agricultural Testament. Oxford University Press, 1940, pp. 253. (AIso in German and Spanish editions.)

Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease. Faber and Faber, 1945, pp. 282. (American edition under the title, The Soil and Health, Devin-Adair.)

Soil and Health Memorial Number,
spring 1948, pp. 80.

Next: 2. The Work on Wheat

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