Norton, John Pitkin

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(b. Albany, New York, 19 July 1822; d. Farmington, Connecticut, 5 September 1852)

agriculture, agricultural chemistry.

Norton was encouraged by his father, John Treadwell Norton, a wealthy Connecticut farmer, to study “scientific” farming. To this end, Norton attended the lectures given by Benjamin Silliman, Sr., Denison Olmsted, and other faculty members at Yale College from 1840 to 1842, although he never formally matriculated. In addition he learned experimental chemistry and mineralogy in Benjamin Silliman, Jr. ’s private laboratory. In 1842 and 1843 Norton enrolled for lectures at the Harvard Law School and attended many scientific lectures in Boston. From 1843 to 1844 he again enrolled in the younger Silliman’s laboratory, where his progress was so rapid and his interest in “scientific” agriculture so great that the Sillinmans arranged for him to spend two years, from 1844 to 1846, in Scotland with James F. W. Johnston, whose work in agricultural chemistry was well known in the United States. While in Scotland, Norton won a prize of 50 from the Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland for his essay on the chemical constitution of oats.

Together with the two Sillimans, Norton devised a plan for professorships in agricultural and practical chemistry at Yale College. After initial reluctance from the Yale Corporation, this plan was approved on 19 August 1846, although formal instruction in these sciences did not begin until 1 November 1847. These professorships, in what was known informally as the Yale School of Applied Chemistry, evolved into the Sheffield Scientific School. Norton, named professor of agricultural chemistry, was probably the first in the United States to hold such a special position. He was also awarded an honorary M. A. by Yale College at this time, his only academic degree. Following his election to this professorship, Norton spent the winter of 1846 and the spring of 1847 in Gerardus Johannes Mulder’s chemistry laboratory in Utrecht, analyzing plant proteins.

In addition to his full schedule of lectures and laboratory instruction at Yale College, Norton campaigned vigorously throughout the Northeast for a new scientific approach to agriculture and agricultural education. In keeping with this emphasis he organized laboratory instruction at the School of Applied Chemistry around analytical chemistry, believing that accurate soil analysis was essential to improved farming.

Norton was a well-trained chemist capable of research of high quality, as his work in Scotland and Utrecht showed. He is chiefly remembered for his inspirational leadership of the scientific farming movement in the United States, for his part in founding a leading American scientific institution, and for an excellent textbook on scientific farming. Many of his students made substantial contributions to scientific teaching and research, although only a handful remained in scientific agriculture. Of these the best-known were Samuel W. Johnson and William H. Brewer, both of whom later joined the faculty of the Sheffield Scientific School. Johnson became director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (the first of its kind in the nation), and Brewer taught agricultural sciences.


I. Original Works. Norton’s most important publication was Elements of Scientific Agriculture (Albany, 1850). He wrote a series of articles for Cultivator, n.s. 1–9 (1844–1852), as well as for American Agriculturist (1844–1846). His major research papers were “On the Analysis of the Oat,” in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser., 3 (1847), 222–236, 318–333; “Account of Some Researches on the Protein Bodies of Peas and Almonds, and a Body of a Somewhat Similar Nature Existing in Oats,” ibid., 5 (1848), 22–23; “On the Value of Soil Analysis, and the Points to Which Special Attention Should Be Directed,” in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), 199–206, written with William J. Craw.

The Yale Memorabilia Room in the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University holds a sizable collection of Norton MS and printed material, including unpublished diaries and letters.

II. Secondary Literature. There is an extensive, although short and fragmentary, literature on Norton. One of the most recent accounts is Louis I. Kuslan, “The Founding of the Yale School of Applied Chemistry,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 24 , no. 4 (1969), 430–451. See also Memorials of John Pitkin Norton (Albany, 1853), a collection of contemporary periodical accounts of his work, which particularly stresses his deep religious faith; and Russell H. Chittenden, History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, I (New Haven, 1928), eh. 2. Margaret W. Rossiter, “Justus Liebig and the Americans” (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1971), will also be useful.

Louis I. Kuslan

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Norton, John Pitkin

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