Anonymous. Royal Agricultural of England. Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (14 May 1864), pp.469-70
(Article printed May 14)
This is a report of a lecture given by Prof. Augustus Voelcker to the Royal Agricultural Society of England on “The Atmospheric Nutrition of Plants” on May 11. Voelckler, who had studied under von Liebig, was consultant chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society and the first professor of chemistry at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester (see also the letter by Charles Lawrence of 17 Jan 1863). Voelckler starts his lecture by strongly criticising the “vegetable mould theory”, which he sees as nothing more than an ignorant resurgence of “humus theory” which held that all plant nutrients came from the soil. It’s worth repeating that Matthew accepted that plants could obtain both carbon nitrogen from the atmosphere (see his original anonymous letter to the Times in Jan 1883), but certainly his language evoked the old humus theory, with its references to “root-mouths” and soil as a “great stomach digesting food for the vegetable creation”.
The opening sentences of the report are as follows:
Professor Voelcker commenced by saying:– Theoretical inquiries like those which had been made from time to time in the nutrition of plants, at first sight might appear of very little practical interest: but on looking closer into the matter, it would be found that questions of vital importance to the farmer depended very much upon the theoretical views entertained with respect to such theoretical inquiries. He would remind them of the controversy that had been revived within the last year or two with respect to the humus theory, under the new name of the vegetable mould theory, and serious apprehensions were entertained by many intelligent educated people that by degrees we might relapse into the condition in which it would be difficult to grow remunerative crops on the soils of England. Those apprehensions would not possibly have been entertained if correct views existed as to the way in which plants took up their food. The old humus theory has been successfully annihilated, for after Liebig’s forcible writings in exposing its fallacy, it was impossible that that theory could be maintained. Yet it was strange that up to this day the readers of respectable journals should be entertained with lengthy papers on the vegetable mould theory as it had been called — papers which were little instructive to those who had not any precise views on the subject, and anything but entertaining to those who were acquainted with the recent progress of scientific research as bearing upon the process of the nutrition of plants.
It is interesting to note that, after this this report of Voelckler’s lecture, I can find no further articles from Matthew on the subject. His letter of April 25 is published in a subsequent issue of Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, but was written beforehand. I find it unlikely that Matthew would be let this report of Voelcker’s lecture lie, so one suspects that the editors of Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette may have decided that enough column inches had been devoted to the subject.