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Howard, Sir Albert (1873–1947), agricultural botanist, was born on 8 December 1873 at Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, the fourth child of Richard Howard (bap. 1833, d. 1893), farmer, and his wife, Ann Kilvert. As a child Howard worked on the family farm, an experience which affected his later attitude to agricultural science, making him critical of what he termed ‘the laboratory hermit’. From Wellington College, Telford, he went in 1893 to the Royal College of Science, South Kensington, where he took his associateship in chemistry with first-class honours. On entering St John's College, Cambridge, in 1896, he specialized in biological subjects. In 1897 he was first in all England in the Cambridge agricultural diploma and the following year he was placed second in all England in the national diploma in agriculture.

In 1899 Howard was awarded first-class honours in the natural sciences tripos and took up his first post, at Harrison College, Barbados. He was soon appointed mycologist and agricultural lecturer to the newly formed imperial department of agriculture for the West Indies. Influenced by the Cambridge botanist Marshall Ward, Howard was already developing the idea which became central to his view of plant disease, that parasites are less likely to attack plants which are healthy. In 1902 he joined the staff of the South-Eastern Agricultural College at Wye, in Kent, where his work on hops proved of great value to growers. He never really settled at Wye, and in 1905 accepted the post of imperial economic botanist to the government of India. Also that year he married Gabrielle Louise Caroline Matthaei (1876–1930), sometime fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, who had produced outstanding work on plant respiration.

Albert and Gabrielle Howard became known as the Sidney and Beatrice Webb of India, their planning and research being invariably a joint effort, and in 1913 Gabrielle was appointed second imperial economic botanist to the government of India. From 1905 until 1924 the Howards ran the experiment station at Pusa, carrying out research on many crops, notably wheat and cotton, and from 1912 to 1919 they were responsible for the fruit experiment station at Quetta. They based their work on holistic principles, as far as possible studying the plant in its context of ecological relationships. Howard greatly respected Asian agriculture, believing that it had lessons to teach the West about keeping soils fertile and crops healthy in difficult conditions. In 1914 Howard was appointed companion in the Order of the Indian Empire and helped establish the Indian Science Congress, of which he was elected president in 1926.

Howard's dissatisfaction with the fragmented nature of agricultural research resulted in the creation of the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore. He and Gabrielle oversaw its planning and construction, which began in 1924. They were convinced that the health of plants was a function of soil fertility, and thought that food grown in humus-rich soil was likely to promote animal and human health. They gradually developed the Indore process of composting, which adapted oriental methods to Indian conditions.

Gabrielle died suddenly in 1930 and Howard decided to leave India. He wanted to convey the lessons of the Indore process to Indian cultivators, and The Waste Products of Agriculture (1931), written with his colleague Y. D. Wad, was intended as his final contribution to agricultural science. He returned to England in 1931 and also that year married Louise Ernestine Matthaei (1880–1969) [see ], who supported his work with the same dedication as her sister Gabrielle had shown. Howard was knighted in 1934. During the 1930s he travelled widely, advising cultivators in Asia, Africa, and Europe on adapting the Indore process to their circumstances; his expertise helped save the Costa Rican coffee industry from collapse.

A pugnacious critic of chemical sprays and fertilizers, Howard spoke at many venues. From 1936 onwards he advised and wrote for the New English Weekly, a journal which enthusiastically promoted organic husbandry. In 1939 he and the nutritionist Sir Robert McCarrison launched the Cheshire doctors' Medical Testament on agriculture and health. In An Agricultural Testament (1940), Howard reviewed the achievements of the Indore process. His converts included Lady Eve Balfour and the horticulturist Lawrence Hills. Despite being a chief source of inspiration for the founding of the Soil Association in 1946, Howard refused to join, unhappy at its scientific work's being subject to control by laymen. He edited his own quarterly journal, Soil and Health (1946–8).

Howard's views on agriculture were underpinned by a religious faith in a natural order whose limits could not be exceeded with impunity. Possessed of an amiable brutality in debate, he commanded the respect of opponents for his sincere championing of humus. Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (1945) gives the best summary of his ideas and practice. He died of a heart attack at his home, 14 Liskeard Gardens, Blackheath, London, on 20 October 1947; his funeral service was held at Honor Oak crematorium three days later. He had no children.

Philip Conford

Sources  

Soil and Health [memorial number] (spring 1948) · L. E. Howard, Sir Albert Howard in India (1953) · A. Howard, Farming and gardening for health or disease (1945) · V. M. Hamilton, ‘Sir Albert Howard’, Organic Gardening (Dec 1947), 14–21 · E. J. Russell, Nature, 160 (1947), 741–2 · WWW, 1941–50 · The Times (9 Nov 1905) · The Times (21 Aug 1930) · The Times (28 Aug 1931) · The Times (21 Oct 1947) · The Times (22 Oct 1947) · private information (2004) [St John Cam.] · Fertiliser and Feeding Stuffs Journal (5 Nov 1947), 643 · Shrops. RRC, Howard family records · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1948) · DNB · d. cert.

Likenesses  

portrait, repro. in L. J. Picton, Thoughts on feeding (1946), facing p. 31

Wealth at death  

£33,807 16s. 8d.: probate, 23 Jan 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales