Incidental phosphorus fertilization in the form of manures, plant and animal biomass, and other
natural materials, such as bones, probably has been practiced since agriculture began. Although
specific nutritional benefits were unknown, Arthur Young in the Annuals of Agriculture in the midnineteenth
century describes experiments evaluating a wide range of products including poultry
dung, gunpowder, charcoal, ashes, and various salts. The results showed positive crop responses to
certain materials. Benefiting from recent developments in chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier
(1743-1794) and others, Theodore de Saussure (1767-1845) was perhaps the first to advance the
concept that plants absorb specific mineral elements from the soil.
The science of plant nutrition advanced considerably in the nineteenth century owing to contributions
by Carl Sprengel (1787-1859), A.F. Wiegmann (1771-1853), Jean-Baptiste Boussingault
(1802-1887), and Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Based on the ubiquitous presence of phosphorus
in soil and plant materials, and crop responses to phosphorus-containing products, it became apparent
that phosphorus was essential for plant growth.
Liebig observed that dissolving bones in sulfuric acid enhanced phosphorus availability to plants.
Familiar with Liebig's work, John Lawes in collaboration with others, evaluated several apatite-containing
products as phosphorus nutritional sources for plants. Lawes performed these experiments in
what ultimately became the world's most famous agricultural experiment station-his estate in
Rothamsted. The limited supply of bones prompted developments in the utilization of rock phosphates
where Lawes obtained the first patent concerning the utilization of acid-treated rock phosphate in
1842, The first commercial production of rock phosphate began in Suffolk, England, in 1847. Mining
phosphate in the United States began in 1867. Thus began the phosphorus fertilizer industry.
Crop responses to phosphorus fertilization were widespread. For many years phosphorus fertilization
practices were based on grower experience often augmented with empirical data from experiment
station field tests. Although researchers and growers realized that customized phosphorus
fertilizer recommendations would be invaluable, early work often focused on total element content
of soils and produced disappointing results. The productivity of soil essentially showed no correlation
to total content of nutrients in them.
It was during the twentieth century that the recognition that the plant itself was an excellent
indicator of nutrient deficiency coupled with considerable advances in analytical methodology gave
way to significant advances in the use of tissue testing. Hall (1)
proposed plant analysis as a means
of determining the normal nutrient contents of plants. Macy (2)
proposed the basic theory that there
was a critical concentration of nutrient in a plant above which there was luxury consumption and
below which there was poverty adjustment, which was proportional to the deficiency until a minimum
percentage was reached.
Also during the twentieth century, a greater understanding of soil chemistry of phosphorus and
the observation that dilute acids seem to correlate to plant-available phosphorus in the soil gave way
to the development of successful soil-testing methodologies. The early contributions of Dyer (3)
, Morgon (5)
, and Bray and Kutrz (6)
are noteworthy. Plant tissue testing and soil testing
for phosphorus are discussed in greater detail in the subsequent sections. For more detailed history
on plant nutrition and soil–plant relationships, readers are referred to Kitchen (7)
and Russell (8)