REFLECTIONS OF A PROFESSOR OF SOIL SCIENCE EMIL TRUOG Emeritus Professor, University of Wisconsin Adapted from Soil Science, March 1965, Volume 99, no. 3, Emil Truog, “Reflections of a professor of soil science.” Reprinted with permission of Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD. Permission from Lippincott Williams & Wilkins is required to reproduce any parts of this article.
I was born on a farm near Independence, Wisconsin, on March 6, 1884, the youngest of ten children. In those days farm boys did not travel far from home. Had I grown up in an industrial area I quite probably would have spent my life inquiring into matters far removed from the soil, for from the very beginning the basic sciences held a great appeal for me. It was when I began to see the use to which these sciences could be put in the solving of the problems of general agriculture, of which I had a first-hand knowledge, that my career in soil science was forged. My parents were Swiss emigrants who came to America shortly after 1850.
My father, then a carpenter, plied his trade in cities along the Mississippi from New Orleans, where he landed, to Dubuque, Iowa. From Dubuque–my father always restless, and imbued, perhaps, with a bit of wanderlust–walked, with a friend, across the state of Iowa from its east
to its west borders. I have often chided my friends that what my father was really looking for was a good farm, but unable to find a suitable one in Iowa’s virgin soils (though this state boasts a high percentage of class 1 farmland), he finally settled in Wisconsin.
Not long after his service in the northern armies during the Civil War, my father married and established himself in wheat raising on an excellent farm near Arcadia, a village in western Wisconsin. Always intrigued by innovations, when a little later he heard news of irrigation farming, just getting underway in Colorado, he sold the farm and went to Colorado to investigate what seemed to be an ideal way of farming: “when you need water, just turn it on, and when you have what you need, just turn it off.”
One disillusioned year later he returned, sadder but wiser, and started all over again on a new farm, the one on which in 1884 I was born and later owned until 1963.At that time children went to school only 6 months of the year, because for the remaining 6 months their families needed their help at home on the farm. I began my education in a one-room school about a mile from my home. My first teacher, Eva May Reid, still lives, at the age of 91 on the farm homesteaded by her Scotch emigrant parents. She is a kindly, vibrant person to whom I owe much, and to whom I wish here to pay a sincere tribute. It was my good fortune that, along the way, I received from my teachers the kind of encouragement and inspiration that led, step by step, to a long and fruitful career. Eva May Reid gave me the needed beginning impetus.
In 1898, after six years of instruction in reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and American history, I went on, through the encouragement of my country schoolteachers, to enter Independence High School, at a distance of 2 miles from my home. It was at Independence, in a physics course taught by Frank Thompson, that I first began to see how science could be used to solve everyday farm problems. Here, for example, I learned that the period of time elapsing between the swings of a pendulum is independent of the distance of the arc of the swing and is dependent solely on the length of the pendulum. This brought to mind the hand driven cream separator we used on the farm which required 50 revolutions of the handle per minute. I saw that I could control this timing by the use of a pendulum consisting of a string of such length that, with a weight on one end, the period of the pendulum’s swing would coincide with the required handle turns of the separator. This would then solve the problem of frequent changes in separator operators who did not own watches. To the amazement of all concerned it worked; it checked perfectly with watch timing.
Again, it was the strong encouragement of a teacher, this time the insistence of Frank Thompson, that took me another step forward. Independence only gave 2 years of regular high school studies. Thompson urged me to enter Arcadia High School, about 8 miles from home, where a full 4-year high school course would qualify me for college entrance. In the spring of 1904, I was graduated from Arcadia; I was valedictorian of the class of 9 boys, 3 of whom were eventually listed in “Who’s Who in America.”
After an intervening year on the farm, I entered the University of Wisconsin. I chose the agriculture course, because it provided a varied training in the basic sciences that so appealed to me at that time, because agriculture was the area in which I had the closest acquaintance, and because my curiosity had been whetted by articles which the farm magazines, to which my father subscribed, had just started to carry on the use of lime and fertilizer. My father had often told me, that, regardless of season, on relatively new land production of good crops never failed. I had noticed, however, that, with cropping, the luxuriant growth on new virgin land declined rapidly. This made a tremendous impression on me. On the basis of what I’d read and observed, I concluded that a rapid decline in crop growth was due to a depletion of some critical element or elements in the soil which could be replaced by proper fertilization. I wanted to find more positive answers to this problem, and I felt that my studies in a College of Agriculture, and particularly in soils, would accomplish this.
Again, it was my good fortune to come under the influence and guidance of sympathetic, understanding teachers. A. R. Whitson, chairman of the department of soils, was also raised on a farm (Minnesota) and also had received a broad scientific training. His own training in the basic sciences, particularly in chemistry, physics, geology, and botany, led him to consider such training as a prime ingredient of his own teaching.
During my college years, I not only became more and more interested in soil science, particularly the chemical phase, I also became more and more aware that this was a field in which there were many unsolved problems the answer to any one of which was far less simple than I had supposed. Following graduation (B.S.A., 1909) Professor Whitson offered me a Research Assistantship in the Soils Department with the privilege of registering at the same time for a limited number of graduate courses. I accepted the appointment, which came under a Federal Adams Grant Project involving phosphorus in soils and plants, and thus opened the door to my first work with graduate students.
One of my first graduate students was T. Y. Tang, a student from China. That soil acidity decreases the availability of soil phosphorus had already been established by Professors Whitson and Stoddart, so, with the assistance of Tang, I embarked on an investigation of the methods of determining soil acidity. One of these methods involved the boiling of the soil suspension with a= certain chemical until the suspension became neutral, but how to know exactly when this neutrality was attained constituted a problem. It occurred to us that, if we introduced a sulfide into the suspension, hydrogen sulfide (which is easily detected) would evolve if the acidity still existed. But which sulfide? Only one, zinc sulfide, gave a satisfactory response. In fact, it was so satisfactory that it was used by me as a basis for a soil acidity test(1) that for many years was widely used by Extension people in both the field and laboratory and served as a forerunner of the many rapid field tests that became popular in later years. As is often the case, the byproduct of an investigation turned out in the end to have more value and importance than the original objective of the research.