Emil Truog

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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 farm land), he finally settled in Wisconsin.

truog2Portrait of Professor Emil Truog, Department Chair,
1939-1954

(From the collection of the Department of Soil
Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison.)

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 school teachers, 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
handdriven 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.

truog_kit

The Hellige-Truog

COMBINATION SOIL TESTER

For Determining

PhosphorusPotassium

Calcium

Magnesium

Soil ReactionNitrates

Ammonia

Sulphates

Chlorides

The Hellige-Truog was in widespread use as a
soil-testing kit in the U.S. between 1930s to 1960s.
(From the collection of the Department of Soil Science,
University of Wisconsin-Madison.)
Another example of such important “byproduct” results was
concerned in my investigation, assisted by graduate students, of practical
methods of soil analysis. At that time agronomists in general did not
place much faith in the value of soil analysis for determining the
fertilizer needs of soils. There were laymen, however, who evidently did
not share this lack of faith. In 1913, without solicitation, the Wisconsin
Legislature instituted financial aid for soil testing that has continued
to the present day. The 1913 appropriation was apparently the first
appropriation of this nature made in this country, and served, needless to
say, as a great stimulus in our University of Wisconsin Soils Department
to research on practical methods of soil analysis.To check soil analysis methods that were being developed with actual
plant growth, I and my graduate students conducted many green house
fertilizer tests with various soils. In test involving alfalfa, we noticed
that, in pots where potassium was omitted, a characteristic pattern of
white “pinhead” spots developed along the border of the leaves.
With increasing potassium deficiency these spots, or areas, became larger,
and, eventually, the whole leaf turned brown.(2) Soon county agricultural
agents were making use of this observation for the detection of alfalfa
fields lacking adequate levels of available potassium, and in some
respects, our ob servation was a forerunner of many other visual foliar
diagnostic tools developed for the recognition of plant nutrient
deficiencies. I have always regretted that my then immediate plans for a
graduate student to investigate, by means of pot tests, the relation
between foliar deficiency symptoms and the various nutrients that plants
obtained from the soil were not consummated because of an abrupt
interruption in the student’s studies and a general pressure of other
work. The possibilities of such research were then clearly evident and
have since been fully confirmed.

World War I seriously interrupted graduate training in soil science. At
the close of the war, however, interest in the subject quickly redeveloped
and some exceptionally capable young men came to the University of
Wisconsin to work in our laboratories. Among these was F. W. Parker, an
unusually good student with much more than ordinary interest in and
capacity for research. He and several other excellent students, who later
became widely known in soil-plant science, formed the nucleus for a large
and growing body of graduate students who began coming to our laboratories
from all over the United States and from other countries as well.

My own experience had taught me the importance of a knowledge of the
basic sciences in the solution of the problems of soil science. I shall
always call it my good fortune that my professors, particularly A. R.
Whitson and Victor Lenher, had insisted that I take such basic science
courses as analytical, physical, and organic chemistry, plant physiology,
and mineralogy. Now, with graduate students under my supervision, I
insisted that these sciences should form the hard core of a study program.
This point of view oftentimes met with some vigorous opposition! I
remember one student particularly. He was Horace J. Harper, from Iowa
State College, an intelligent, conscientious, and hard-working student. He
objected strenuously to the inclusion in his program of “all this
heavy science” that he could not see as any help to his future career
in soils, but on the completion of the required science courses he told me
that because of these courses be “now saw soil problems in an
entirely different light.” By 1930, student objection to advanced
work in the basic sciences was gradually beginning to decline.

It was reported at the time of my retirement (1954) that the hundred or
more Ph.D.’s earned under my supervision set a record for graduate
supervision at the University of Wisconsin. In this work, I was greatly
aided by several other circumstances: a climate throughout the University
that was favorable; a loyal support and cooperation on the part of staff
members of the Soils Department; the availability of graduate scholarships
and fellowships, in which the fertilizer and chemical industries and the
Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation played such generous roles; and the
substantial sum of money for graduate study in soils willed to us by
Professor F. L. Musbach, whose own work in the Soils Department was
unfortunately terminated by his untimely death. The growth of a strong
graduate program in soil science was also greatly facilitated by the
organization (early in my career) at the University of Wisconsin of
autonomous graduate teaching groups or divisions, each representing a half
dozen or more related disciplines, to standardize and regulate minimum
requirements–particularly of the basic sciences–that all candidates for
higher degrees would have to fulfill. Early in this development the Soils
Department became a member of both the Chemistry and Biological Divisions.

During its existence, the College of Agriculture at Wisconsin has had
(until just recently) six Deans, under all of whom I have either worked as
a student or served as a staff member. The first Dean, W. A. Henry, made a
particularly lasting impression on me. I have often called the attention
of my students to the German adage he quotes on the title page of his
famous book Feeds and Feeding, first published in 1898. The quote
reads: “The eye of the Master fattens his cattle.” Like our
experience in our observation of the white spots on alfalfa leaves, the
ever alert eye of the investigator may reveal a secret of Nature that is
more important than that deliberately being investigated.

That the International Congress of Soil Science should hold one of its
meetings at the University of Wisconsin had been a desire of mine for a
great many years, but when the proposition to convene at Wisconsin in 1960
was under advisement, there was considerable anxiety concerning our
ability to properly finance the affair. But I remembered well the first
Congress of this Society, which was held in this country in 1927. There
were financial problems then, but Dr. Jacob G. Lipman of Rutgers
University, then President of the organization, virtually single-handed
raised, by subscription, over $100,000 to finance the Congress. It seemed
to me that what could be done in 1927 could surely be done in 1960, and
especially so since conditions were currently considerably more favorable
to it than in 1927. My enthusiasm for the Congress and faith that the
money could be raised, resulted–as so often is the case!–in my being
appointed Chairman of the committee to accomplish it. We raised $175,000,
a seventh of which was represented by gratis services of Federal and State
agencies. The very successful 7th Congress held at Wisconsin in 1960 was,
thus, to me an especially gratifying event.

Late in my teaching career I accidentally learned of the work and
writings of one Edmund Ruffin, an early nineteenth-century Virginia farmer
who was probably the first man in America to make chemical soil tests. Due
to the ravages of the Civil War, his work and writings had become for the
most part lost and forgotten. Following my address, largely devoted to
Ruffin’s work, as president of the Agronomy Society in 1938, there has
been a great revival of interest in his work. I regret that I did not know
about this man earlier in my career, but I commend it to today’s graduate
students as a source of great inspiration in their work.

As I now reflect back on my teaching career, I realize that many
circumstances of it were, indeed, fortunate. The first-hand knowledge and
experience that birth on a pioneer farm brought me, the example of frugal,
patient, hard-working parents of high integrity, the good fortune of fine
teachers, the favorable climate in the University–all this helped me on
my way. I should also like to add that over the many years of my dealing
with graduate students, their wives and families, my good wife, Lucy Rayne
Truog, has been a capable companion and a constant source of inspiration
to me. To her I owe a great debt of gratitude.

In the end, however, for student and teacher alike, there is no
substitute for patience, perseverance, and hard work, and for “the
seeing eye and inquiring mind of which one of my own professors so often
reminded us.” Faith and confidence in one’s capacities, and an
enthusiasm for research are also important ingredients for success. These
latter aspects can often be instilled in the new graduate student by
starting him off with a preliminary type of investigation which can be
completed in a relatively short time and has good promise of positive
results. Never let it be said that a student failed because his teacher
failed to make an effort to develop in the student a proper mental
attitude. Much of my own teaching philosophy was derived from my own
experience as a student. The effect of my professors on my career was, I
believe, salutary. That my own students in going out in the world have so
often performed much more creditably than I had even expected they would,
has been a gratifying endorsement of those teaching precepts.

(1)Wisconsin Agricultural Extension Bulletin 249 (1915).

(2)Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 352 (1923),
p. 100.

 

Emil Truog Soil Science Award:
The Truog Award is presented by the Soil
Science Society of America
to a PhD recipient who has made an
outstanding contribution to soil science in his or her PhD
thesis.  The nominee must have received the PhD in the year
preceding the year the award is presented.