History is often told as the stories of great men, with walk-on parts for great women – and of course it’s not really like that. The great men and women who do feature should all say, with Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” More broadly, all should acknowledge, and some do, that the Giants include all of humanity. All the great crafts on which civilizations are founded, and gave rise to science, were developed to a very high order before historians got round to noting who had done what – indeed, before writing was invented and history became possible. This is true of building, metallurgy, textiles, to some extent of medicine – and is certainly true of agriculture. The impression is sometimes given these days that there was no agriculture before Fritz Haber showed how to fix atmospheric nitrogen and Paul Hermann Muller revealed the insecticidal properties of DDT – but it just isn’t so. All the biggest problems of agriculture had been solved long before anyone even conceived of science.
But individuals are key nonetheless. Among them are a great many scientists, for good and not so good, including Haber and Muller, and Gregor Mendel and Paul Berg, and Justus von Liebig and John Bennet Lawes, the founder of Rothamsted. So too are the agricultural innovators: Robert Bakewell, the livestock breeder; Turnip Townshend, promoter of the Norfolk four-course rotation; Albert Howard, pioneer of composting; and many, many more. Then there are commentators and reformers of many kinds, from Columella and Cicero in Ancient Rome to William Cobbett in the early 19th century to Eve Balfour and Rachel Carson in the 20th.
We should know about such people because they are intrinsically interesting and because many of them really did change the course of history. But also, biography extends beyond mere factual accounts because it reveals what people thought in their own times and also shows that all human developments – including science, and certainly including politics and economics – are human pursuits, driven by human heroism and/or obsession, and subject to all human frailties, especially social pressure. In this again, the present is just like the past.