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Edward Lewis Sturtevant

Edward Lewis Sturtevant, farmer, botanist, physician and author, was one of the giants of his time in the science of agriculture. Through natural endowment, industry and rare mental attainments, he accomplished more than most men in scientific research by his own efforts. But, possibly, he achieved even more through his influence on his fellow-workmen than by his own endeavors. Rare, indeed, are the men in any field of attainment who have furnished so freely as he from an inexhaustible store of information unfailing aid and inspiration to those who worked with him. The happy combination of these two qualities, work and ability to help others work, led Sturtevant to success significant enough to make him one of the honor men of agriculture in the United States. From this brief and incommensurate tribute, we pass to a sketch of Sturtevant's active life.

As to genealogy, the line of descent runs from Samuel, the first Sturtevant in America, who landed in Plymouth in 1642, through generations living in Plympton and Wareham, Massachusetts, to Consider Sturtevant who purchased a farm at Winthrop, Maine, in 1810. Here Dr. Sturtevant's father was born but later moved to Boston, the birthplace of Dr. Sturtevant. His mother was Mary Haight Leggett from a family of fighting Quakers who settled at West Farm, New York, about 1700.

Born in Boston, January 23, 1842, Sturtevant, as a child, was taken by his parents to Philadelphia and here, with little time intervening, his father and mother died. Young Sturtevant's aunt, a Mrs. Benson, became his guardian, and with her the lad moved to Winthrop, Maine, the birthplace of his father. His early school days were spent in New Jersey, though later he prepared for college at Blue Hill, Maine. His preliminary education finished, Sturtevant, in 1859, entered Bowdoin College, to remain until 1861, when, at the urgent call of the country for college men to serve in the civil strife then raging, he enlisted in the Union army.

To classical Bowdoin, Sturtevant owed much for his ability to write. Few scientists who have written so much and so rapidly, have written as well. His English is not ornate but is vivid, terse, logical, happy in phrasing and seldom at loss for the proper word. To classical Bowdoin, too, Sturtevant owes his remarkable ability to use languages. Greek, Latin, French and German in the written form were familiar to him, and he was able to read, more or less well, scientific treatises in several other of the European languages. Though he was not graduated with his class at Bowdoin, the college later gave him her degree of Bachelor of Arts and still later further honored him with her Master of Arts.

Sturtevant entered the Union army in September, 1861, as First Lieutenant of Company G, 74th Regiment of Maine Volunteers. It speaks well for the youth of barely twenty-one that the following January he became Captain of his company. Company G was a part of the 19th Army Corps which, during Captain Sturtevant's service in it, was stationed on the lower Mississippi where, possibly, its most important work was the siege of Port Hudson. A part of Sturtevant's time in the army was spent on the staff of General Nickerson, 3d Brigade, 2d Division, serving with the rank of Captain. Possibilities of further service, higher promotion, or, on the other hand, death or wounds on the battle field, were cut short by an attack of typhoid malaria which so incapacitated him that he returned home in 1863, his career in the army ended.

The next landmark in Sturtevant's life is a course in the Harvard Medical School from which he received a degree in 1866. But, possessed of a degree from one of the leading medical colleges in the country, he did not begin the practice of medicine, and, in fact, never followed the profession. We may assume, however, that the training in a medical school turned his attention to science, for, possibly, the best science in American institutions at this time was to be found in a few leading schools of medicine. The year following the completion of the medical course was spent with his brother Thomas in Boston.

In 1867, E. Lewis, Joseph N. and Thomas L. Sturtevant purchased land at South Framingham, Massachusetts. The farm soon became famous, under the name "Waushakum Farm," for a series of brilliant experiments in agriculture which are still models in experimental acumen and conscientious execution. Here, almost at once, E. Lewis Sturtevant began the foundation of a great agricultural and botanical library, one possibly not surpassed in these fields of science by any other private collection, while, as it was eventually developed, for Prelinnean works it is still unsurpassed by any other American library. Here, too, almost at once, Sturtevant started the studies of cultivated plants recorded in this volume.

The immediate concern of the Sturtevant brothers, however, was the development of a model dairy farm of Ayrshire cattle. Waushakum Farm soon became the home of this breed. Several scientific aspects of this work with Ayrshires are worth noting. Milk records of the herd and of individual animals, covering many milking periods, were kept and still constitute, according to dairymen of our day, a most valuable contribution to dairying. As an outcome of their researches with this breed, a monograph of 252 pages was published on Ayrshire cattle by the brothers in 1875. Out of their work with Ayrshires came the North American Ayrshire Register published by E. Lewis and Joseph N. Sturtevant in several annual volumes. These books are still in use by breeders of Ayrshires and are of permanent value as records of the breed. E. Lewis Sturtevant in particular gave attention to the physiology of milk and milk secretion. His studies of fat globules in milk of different breeds of cows attracted much attention in the agricultural press, and he was soon in great demand as a speaker before agricultural and dairy associations.

But even in these first days on Waushakum Farm, the Ayrshires did not occupy all of his time. One is amazed in looking through the agricultural papers of the late sixties and early seventies at the number of articles signed by E. L. Sturtevant — still in his twenties. These early articles show originality, intense curiosity in regard to everything new, scientific imagination, a mind fertile in fruitful ideas and tremendous industry. These first articles in the press, too, show that he early possessed initiative, a trait which he retained throughout his scientific life. In all of his work it was seldom that he had to seek ideas or suggestions from others, though he was possessed of a mind which appreciated new trains of thought, and many there were of his day who could speak of his kindly interest in the work of others.

Indian corn attracted Sturtevant from the first. No sooner had he settled on Waushakum Farm than he began a botanical and cultural study of maize which he continued to the time of his death. The first fruits of his work with corn was the introduction of an improved variety of Yellow Flint, the new sort being called "Waushakum." This variety was wonderfully productive, yields of 125 bushels of shelled corn to the acre being common. Breeding this new variety was a piece of practical work that brought the head of Waushakum Farm more prominence in agriculture than any of his scientific work, "scientific farming" at that time not being in high repute with tillers of the soil.

Sturtevant wrote much on Indian corn, contributing many short articles on its culture on the farm and several long treatises on its botany and the classification of its many varieties. Perhaps the most notable of the scientific articles are in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Society for August, 1894, and Bulletin 57 on Varieties of Corn from the United States Department of Agriculture. The last-named work is a monograph on maize which is still the best authority on this valuable plant and a permanent tide mark, as it were, to show Sturtevant's ability in working up the history of cultivated plants. Besides setting forth the botany of corn, this bulletin describes 800 varieties, gives their synonyms and establishes a scientific nomenclature for Indian corn. The varieties are placed in groups in accordance with their relationship, thus giving to scientist and farmer a classification of this immensely variable plant.

To Sturtevant is given the credit of having built the first lysimeter in America. This instrument, to measure the percolation of water through a certain depth of soil, was put in on the Waushakum Farm in 1875. It covered five-thousandths of an acre and measured water percolations to the depth of twenty-five inches. Records from the apparatus were kept from late in 1875 to the beginning of 1880—a little more than four full years. The results, presented in papers at several scientific meetings, and freely discussed in the agricultural press, gave him high standing among agricultural experimenters in America.

In spite of duties that must have claimed much of his time on Waushakum Farm, Sturtevant found time to undertake investigations in many diverse fields of agriculture. As the years advanced, he put more and more energy in the rapidly growing field of agricultural research until finally experimentation came to claim most of his attention. His eminence in research on Waushakum Farm brought him many opportunities to speak and write on agricultural affairs, in which work his facile pen and ready speech greatly enhanced his reputation as an experimenter. A natural outcome of his growth in the work he had chosen was that his services should be sought in scientific institutions having to do with agriculture. In 1882, the Board of Control of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, located at Geneva, New York, selected him Director of the Station, an institution just created by the State Legislature, and asked him to organize the work.

Perhaps Sturtevant was the more ready to give up Waushakum Farm and devote his whole time to scientific research for the reason that in 1879, the trio that had for twelve years made the farm famous was broken by the death of one of the three brothers, Joseph N. Sturtevant. The association of these two brothers had been so close that the obituary of Joseph, written by E. L. Sturtevant for the Scientific Farmer, becomes of interest in this biography. We publish it in full:

"Joseph N. Sturtevant, born April 1, 1844; died Jan. 19, 1879. Member of the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture 1873-5. A brief record of a short but useful life. And yet this life, which struggled with the difficulties brought about by ill health from birth, made the most of the few well moments, and has made an impress upon agricultural thought which shall continue even if the originator be unrecognized and forgotten. Honest in thought as in action, caring nothing for applause, a true philanthropist in all that constitutes the word, a careful thinker, considerate towards the opinions of others, and yet possessing a positiveness of character which came through conviction, his advice was often sought and seldom unheeded. Without personal vanity, as delicate as a woman towards the rights of others, a mind trained to goodness for its own sake, one who believed in good because of the good, and hated evil because of the evil, the future life was lost sight of in the present, and there was nothing additional that religion could bring, because he was true religion itself in every fibre of body and movement of mind. His creed,—

What is excellent,
As God lives in permanent.'

And his life and creed were as one; and he was one who held familiar converse with self, and was trustful of man's power to do the right as well as to think it, and looked upon wrong as the mar which came through the self rather than others, and in purity of thought sought that purity of life which distinguished him.

"He has appeared before the public as one of the authors of The Dairy Cow, Ayrshire, as one of the editors of the North American Ayrshire Register, and as contributor to our various agricultural papers. In the Scientific Farmer he has contributed many articles without signature, some signed J. N. S., others signed Zelco, and a few under his own name. He commenced writing for the Country Gentleman in 1868, using the nom de plume of Zelco, and although this was his favorite paper before the close connection with the Scientific Farmer arose, yet he wrote occasionally for the Massachusetts Ploughman, New England Farmer, National Live Stock Journal, and other papers, but usually upon request. The series of 'In and Out Papers,' written under the nom de plume of Alex. B., in the Scientific Farmer, commencing with the May number for 1876, and continuing till the farewell in the April number for 1878, when his health broke down, has received marked attention, and showed the possibilities of a literary career, had only the health which admitted of close and continuous application been granted.

"The trio at Waushakum Farm is now broken. Three brothers purchased the farm and formed one life in 1866, and for twelve years there have been harmonious thought and action,—and now—and now—a wearying sense of desolation."

The invitation to take up work in New York was accepted and Dr. Sturtevant moved at once to Geneva to become, in his new work in agricultural research, an explorer in an almost virgin field. The splendid institutions we now have, created by the Hatch Act of Congress, did not come into existence until 1888. But six other States had planned to begin experimental work in agriculture, four of which had made modest starts, but as yet not much had been accomplished. There were but few models in the Old World, and these were established in very different environment. The financial support was meager, and encouragement from those the Station sought to serve was correspondingly small. The new Director had to deal with the fundamentals of agricultural research at a time when few men could see the need of such research, and almost no one could be found to help carry the work forward.

Under many difficulties and discouragements, Dr. Sturtevant began to develop the Station. His plan was more comprehensive than any other yet conceived in America. All phases of agriculture as carried on in New York were to be recognized. Horticulture, live-stock and crop departments were organized with chemical and botanical departments as handmaids. A notable group of men was brought to form the new staff and within a few years, gauged by the time and opportunity, the Station was doing epoch-making work. One needs only to name the staff, everyone destined to make a high name for himself in his field of endeavor, to measure the high standard Sturtevant set. Thus, in the Third Annual Report of the Station, the Director has as his staff: C. S. Plumb, Assistant to the Director; Emmett S. Goff, Horticulturist; J. C. Arthur, Botanist; S. Moulton Babcock, Chemist; and E. F. Ladd, Assistant Chemist. These men helped to lay broad and deep the foundation of the Station.

Dr. Sturtevant was Director of the New York Station from July, 1882, to March, 1887—not quite five years. Much of his time must have been taken up with executive work incidental to a new institution. Yet the six reports of the Station show much real research material, and much extension work, more needed then than now, that speak well for the initiative and industry of the Director and his small staff. Be it remembered that in these early days there were no laboratories and but scant equipment, with only the small sum of $20,000 annually available for maintenance, salaries and improvements. The Board of Control confessedly did not have clear ideas of the function of the Station, and there were many opponents in the press, and even on the farms, who lost no opportunities to criticise.

One of the best measures of the man can be found in the initial policy of the Station as determined by Dr. Sturtevant. Widely divergent opinions prevailed as to the work of such institutions. Dr. Sturtevant asserted that the function of a Station was to "discover, verify and disseminate." He saw clearly from the very first the need of well-established fundamental principles in agriculture and set his staff at the work of discovering principles. His scientific work on Waushakum Farm had taught him that there were many possible errors in prevailing experimental work, and he at once set about determining their source and the best means of minimizing them. During his stay at the New York Station, in several reports he urged the importance of learning how to experiment, how to interpret results and pointed out errors in certain kinds of experimentation. He believed that the management and responsibility for a station should rest with the Director alone as the only way in which unity and continuity of direction could be secured. Those conversant with experiment stations must see how generally these views of Dr. Sturtevant now prevail and must give him credit for very materially helping to found the splendid system of present-day experiment stations.

These five years at Geneva added greatly to Dr. Sturtevant's store of knowledge of cultivated plants. During the time he was Director, all the varieties of cultivated esculents that could be obtained were grown on the grounds of the Station. The early volumes of the reports of this Station are filled with descriptions of varieties of cultivated plants grown on the grounds. Now, it is certain that if additions are to be made to the knowledge of the origin of cultivated plants, such additions must come largely from experimental observations of the plants themselves to ascertain the stages through which they have come from the wild to the cultivated form. The remarkable collection of plants grown under Dr. Sturtevant's direction gave, as this text shows on many pages, an unsurpassed opportunity to study plants in the steps they have taken from first cultivation to their present forms.

Dr. Sturtevant's opportunities for research in books during this directorship was hardly less remarkable. The Sturtevant Prelinnean Library, now in the Missouri Botanical Garden, numbers over 500 titles in several languages. These, with most of the more modem texts on plants, gave him sources of information then possessed by few other students of plants, for many of the rarer books were inaccessible to Americans of Sturtevant's time. In this great library, the patience and erudition of Dr. Sturtevant became priceless. Here, he sought historical mention of edible plants; travelers' descriptions of them; the names of the many esculents used by various peoples; their geographical distributions; their various uses; cultural treatments; the connections of food plants with great migrations of mankind both in ancient and modem times. He studied selection as affected by the likes and dislikes of various peoples, and gave particular attention to the studies of archaeologists on the material remains of plants.

In 1887, Dr. Sturtevant gave up his charge of the Station at Geneva and returned to the old home at South Framingham. But the opportunity for experimental work on Waushakum Farm had passed. The city had encroached upon the country, and where had been pastures and farm fields were now town lots and dwellings. The inclination for research which throughout his life had animated Sturtevant, now took the turn, more than ever, of research in books. Near the old home, into which he moved with his family, he housed his library in a small building and set to work. Always diligent with the pen, and his favorite subject the history of plants, there is no question but that he now determined to put in permanent form the many articles he had printed here and there on the origin, history and variations in cultivated plants. His manuscripts, notes and the articles in American Naturalist indicate such a determination. Had not ill health and untimely death intervened, it is probable that Sturtevant would have put forth the volume which now, a quarter-century later, comes from the hands of an editor.

The idea of writing a history of food plants came to Dr. Sturtevant long before his retirement from active professional work — in fact must have been in his mind from college days. His books were well under way and much had been accomplished as early as 1880, for in April of that year he wrote to the Country Gentleman asking its readers to give him information on the introduction of food plants, for seeds of new or curious esculents, for reports on the foods of agricultural Indians, stating the purpose of these questions as follows: "I am collecting the material for writing a Flora Dietica, or a history of food plants, with especial reference to the distribution and variation of cultivated plants. My inquiries thus far embrace 1,185 genera, and (including probably some synonyms) 3,087 species of food plants." Then follow numerous questions, after which he further states: "Geographical botany, acclimatization through variations, the increase of varieties with the increase of knowledge and the spread of civilization, what man has done and what man can hope to do in modifying vegetable growth to his use and support—is a subject of great interest as well as importance; and it seems desirable that information which can be obtained now, while our country is not yet wholly occupied, should be put upon record against the time when the ascertaining of these facts will be more difficult."

The manuscripts at the disposal of the editor show Dr. Sturtevant to have been an omnivorous reader. A glance at the foot-note citations to literature in this text shows the remarkable range of his readings in agriculture, botany, science, history, travel and general literature. Besides the mass of material from which this text has been taken, there is in the possession of the Geneva Station the manuscript of an Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Allied Subjects, work at which, as the title page says, began March 3, 1879. This encyclopedia, unfortunately for all engaged in agriculture, was completed only to the letter M. Its 1200, closely written, large-size pages form, as far as they go, a full dictionary on agriculture. In addition to the manuscripts left at this Station, are card notes on agricultural, botanical and historical matters, while another set, with but few duplicates of cards, are in the possession of the Missouri Botanical Garden. This set, much the better of the two, was put in shape and presented to the Missouri Botanical Garden only a few weeks before Dr. Sturtevant's death.

In addition to his experimental and executive work, his Notes on Edible Plants and the Encyclopedia of Agriculture, Sturtevant found time to contribute hundreds of articles, long and short, to the agricultural and scientific press. Those of most note are recorded in the bibliography which follows, but the total output of his thirty years of literary work is better gaged as to quantity by a series of scrapbooks in which he systematically preserved his pen contributions. There are twelve volumes of these scrapbooks filled with newspaper and magazine articles, the earliest written being dated November 2, 1867, and the last October 6, 1896. Besides these, there are two volumes containing sixty-four pamphlets most of which are named in the accompanying bibliography. Thus roughly to state the quantity of a man's work may seem to indicate only the prodigality of his pen. So to judge Dr. Sturtevant does him a great injustice, for everything to which he set his pen is thoughtful, lucid and logical even if not always adorned by grace of expression. There is often in his writings a happy turn of phrase, and the inevitable word usually turns up at the right place

The newspapers of the two States in which he lived furnished the medium through which Dr. Sturtevant reached the general reader, and for the farmer he had at his command the agricultural press of the whole country. Contributions of scientific character were published in American Naturalist, Botanical Gazette, Garden and Forest, Torrey Botanical Club Bulletin and Science. The indexes of the magazines, during the time of Sturtevant's active work, furnish sufficient clues to his contributions.

For a little more than two years, Dr. Sturtevant was associated with E. H. Libby, as editor of the Scientific Farmer, after which, for nearly a year and a half, he was sole editor. The joint editorship began in March, 1876, and ended in May, 1878, the magazine being discontinued in October, 1879. The Scientific Farmer was in all matters pertaining to agriculture abreast of the times — in most matters in advance of the times — notwithstanding which it was not a financial success, and, becoming too heavy a drain on its owner's pocket, was discontinued. The magazine was published before the days of experiment station bulletins and contains the gist of the agricultural investigations then being carried on, most of it being reported by the investigators themselves. As editor, Dr. Sturtevant assumed the role of analyst of the scientific work in the agriculture of the times, using, as all must agree, singularly good judgment and discrimination in his discussions of the work of others.

One of the great pleasures of Dr. Sturtevant's life seems to have been active participation in the several scientific societies to which he belonged. He was long a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science; he was one of the founders of the Society for the Promotion of Agricultural Science, serving as its first secretary and fourth president; while in Massachusetts, he was active in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society; and during his directorship of the New York Station was one of the leaders in the Western New York Horticultural Society. He was, too, at various times, a member of several general agricultural and dairymen's organizations. He was never a passive member in any of the societies in which he was interested and to those named, in particular, presented many papers, while the minutes of the meetings record that his voice was heard in all important discussions.

Dr. Sturtevant's wedded life began in 1864 when he married Mary Elizabeth Mann. To this happy union were born four children, two sons and two daughters, the wife and mother dying in 1875. In 1883, he again married, taking as his wife Hattie Mann, sister to the first wife. By this marriage there was one son. Dr. Sturtevant's colleagues at Geneva, to several of whom the writer is indebted for much information, speak of the devotion of the husband and father to his family and say that he rarely sought companionship outside the home circle and that, on their part, mother and children were devoted to the head of the household and constantly gave him substantial help in his work. The eldest daughter, Grace Sturtevant, talented with pencil and brush, made the drawings and colored sketches to illustrate her father's writings on peppers and sweet potatoes, while those of maize, published in the Report of the New York Station for 1884, were done by Mrs. Sturtevant.

In 1893, Dr. Sturtevant was a victim of one of the epidemics of grippe which each returning winter ravaged the country. He never fully recovered from this attack and his health began to fail until shortly it was found that tuberculosis had secured firm hold. With the hope that the disease might be thrown off, three winters were passed in California with temporary but not permanent relief. July 30, 1898, he passed away. It was a fitting death; he passed quietly to sleep in the old home on Waushakum Farm to which his work had given distinguished name.


Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World, 1919, was edited by U. P. Hedrick.



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