Stephen Moulton Babcock

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Babcock, Stephen Moulton

(b. Bridgewater, New York, 22 October 1843; d. Madison, Wisconsin, 1 July 1931)

agricultural chemistry.

Babcock, the son of Pelig and Mary Scott Babcock, received the B.A. from Tufts College in 1866. His engineering studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were cut short when he had to manage the family farm after his father’s death. However, he was soon taking chemistry courses at Cornell University, and in 1875 was made an instructor in the subject. In 1877 Babcock began graduate studies at the University of Göttingen under Hans Hübner, receiving the Ph.D. in 1879. He resumed his instructorship at Cornell in 1881 but left in 1882 to become chief chemist at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. He moved to an equivalent position at the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station in 1888 and was also appointed professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Wisconsin. Both positions were held until his retirement as emeritus professor in 1913. He married May Crandall in 1896.

Babcock is best known for his test for butterfat in milk, introduced in 1890. By using sulfuric acid to release the fat from its normal suspension and centrifuging and diluting, it was possible to measure directly the percentage of fat by observing it in the neck of a specially designed test bottle. The simplicity of the test permitted its use by persons without scientific training. Its use altered the economics of dairying and stimulated growth of the dairy industry.

With the bacteriologist Harry L. Russell, Babcock developed the process for cold curing of cheese in 1900. The great improvement in the quality of cheese led to wide acceptance of the process in the dairy industry.

Babcock’s most important contribution arose from his skepticism regarding the biological equivalency of chemically similar feeds from different crops. In 1907 four of his younger associates—E.B. Hart, E.V. McCollum, H. Steenbock, and G. Humphrey began a cattle-feeding experiment using chemically equivalent rations, each derived from a different plant. The experiment not only confirmed Babcock’s skepticism but led to studies that helped develop the vitamin concept.

Babcock also studied metabolic water in insects and, in his later years, sought to investigate the structure of matter and its relation to energy.


I. Original Works. Babcock had an aversion to writing and published very little. Most of his work is described in bulletins and annual reports of the New York and Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Stations. The fat test was originally published as “A New Method for the Estimation of Fat in Milk, Especially Adapted to Creameries and Cheese Factories,” in Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin Experiment Station, no.24 (July 1890). The studies with H.L. Russell on cold curing of cheese appeared in Bulletin, no.94(1902). Research Bulletin no. 22 (1912) is entitled Metabolic Water: Its Production and Role in Vital phenomena. The single-grain feeding experiments, under the authorship of E.B. Hart, E.V. McCollum, H. Steenbock, and G. Humphrey, are reported in Research Bulletin no.17 (1911).

Babcock’s unpublished papers are held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

II. Secondary Literature. Paul de Kruif has a perceptive biographical sketch of Babcock in Hunger Fighters (New York, 1928), ch.9; and Aaron J. Ihde has a short sketch in Eduard Farber, ed., Famous Chemists (New York, 1961), pp. 808–808, with a bibliography of other biographical sketches on pp.828–828. The history of the fat test is described by J.L. Sammis, The Story of the Babcock Test, Circular 172, Extension Services of the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin (Madison, 1924).

Aaron J. Ihde

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Stephen Moulton Babcock

Stephen Moulton Babcock (1843-1931) was an American agricultural chemist. He perfected the Babcock test for determining the butterfat content of milk, a great stimulus to the growth of the dairy industry.

Stephen Babcock was born on Oct. 23, 1843, in Bridgewater, N.Y., of Puritan stock. After graduating from Tufts University in 1866, he attended Cornell, where he was also a chemistry instructor; he obtained his doctorate in Germany at Göttingen in 1879.

Babcock invented an early method of simple milk analysis while working at the Geneva, N.Y., agricultural experimental station in 1881. He was professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1913 (emeritus thereafter), where most of his discoveries were made. He helped direct the Wisconsin state experimental station from 1901 to 1913.

Babcock's central interest was the chemical analysis of milk; but in 1890 he succumbed to pressure from the dairy industry and his Wisconsin colleagues to take an interest in practical, commercial matters. After studying the previous work on butterfat testing, he favored using a chemical agent to liberate the fat globules from the casein content of milk, followed by centrifugal action to complete the milk separation; he settled on sulfuric acid as the agent. The Babcock test, which he developed in 1890, was a total success; simple and reliable, it not only tested milk quality but also made it possible to evaluate cattle, fix standards for municipal milk inspection, and set fair milk prices according to quality grading, which discouraged further watering or skimming of milk by farmers. Despite opposition the test was widely accepted by 1892. Babcock improved it over the years, refining the test as late as 1910. In view of the vast increase in milk output in the United States (ninefold growth between 1870 and 1900), Babcock's test was equaled as a technical advance in dairying only by the centrifugal cream separator. He refused a patent on the test, although it saved millions of dollars for American dairymen by providing data to improve stockbreeding and by cutting butterfat loss in cream separation. The Capper Award in 1930, worth $5,000, was the sole direct monetary gain he received for his discovery.

Babcock worked from 1896 on the biochemistry of casein and its influence on cheese making. In 1897 the enzyme galactase was isolated, to which the decomposition of protein in curd was traced. In 1900 the coordinate influence of another enzyme, pepsin, was discovered and in 1903 a cold-curing process for cheese perfected. Babcock also helped prepare the way for recognition of vitamin A by studying "hidden hunger" in animals.

A few months before his death, on July 2, 1931, the New York Legislature honored Babcock with a bill to preserve his birthplace, the farm at Babcock Hill, Bridgewater.

Further Reading

Babcock's personal papers are in the Wisconsin State Historical Society archives. The book that best describes Babcock's place in the history of the American dairy industry is Eric Lampard, The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin (1963). See also T. Pirtle, History of the Dairy Industry (1926), and John J. Dillon, Seven Decades of Milk (1941). □