Stephen M. Babcock

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Stephen Moulton Babcock (1843–1931) was a U.S. agricultural chemist. He is best known for his Babcock test in determining dairy butterfat in milk processing, in cheese processing, and in the "single-grain experiment" that would lead to the development of nutrition as a science. His studies helped to standardize the quality of dairy produce, where earlier there had been much variation. His work also functioned to bolster dairy production in the state of Wisconsin and secure its place as the country's leading cheese producer. Later, he was employed as a professor and leading chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1887 to 1913. Babcock's "single grain experiment" illustrated an unquestionable connection between diet and wellness and provided the impetus for the scientific study of nutrition.

Early life and career

Born on a farm in Oneida County, New York, Babcock earned degrees from Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York before earning a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Gottingen, Germany. Upon his return to the United States in 1881, Babcock took up the role of an agricultural chemist at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York where his first assignment was to determine the proper feed ratios of carbohydrate, fat, and protein from cow excrement using chemical analysis. His findings determined that the excrement's chemical composition was similar to that of the feed with the only major exception being the ash. These results were tested and retested, and his results were found to be similar to German studies done earlier. This led Babcock to think about what would happen if the cows were fed a single grain (barley, corn, wheat) though that test would not occur for nearly 25 years.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Seven years later, Babcock accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Agrcultural Experiment Station (UWAES) as chair of the Agricultural Chemistry department, and immediately began petitioning Dean of Agriculture William Henry, then station director, to perform the "single-grain experiment." Henry refused. In the meantime, he discovered the Babcock test which determines the butterfat content of milk in 1890, then worked with bacteriologist Harry L. Russell in developing the cold-curing process for ripening cheese (1897). The former method is the standard for butterfat determination of milk worldwide (replacing the much more expensive and rarely utilized method employed before) while the latter led Wisconsin to be the leading cheese producer in the United States.[1]

"Single-grain experiment"

Babcock continued pressing Henry to perform the "single-grain experiment," even approaching the UWAES animal husbandry chair J.A. Craig (he refused). When W.L. Carlyle replaced Craig in 1897, Carlyle was more receptive to Babcock's idea. Initially trying a salt experiment with eight dairy cows as a matter of taste preference while eight other cows received no salt. After one of the eight cows that did not receive salt died, Carlyle discontinued the experiment and all of the remaining cows were given salt in order to restore their health.

Henry, now Dean of Agriculture in 1901, finally relented and gave Babcock permission to perform the experiment. Carlyle approved the experiment with only two cows. One cow was fed corn while the other was fed rolled oats and straw with hopes the experiement would last one year. Three months into the experiment, the oat-fed cow died, and Carlyle halted the event to save the other cow's life. The results were not published mainly because Babcock did not list how much of each grain the respective cows had consumed.

In 1906, a chemist from the University of Michigan, Edwin B. Hart (1874-1953), was hired by Babcock. Hart had previously worked at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and had studied physiological chemistry under Albrecht Kossel in Germany. Both worked with George C. Humphrey, who replaced Carlyle as animal husbandry professor, to plan a long-term feeding plan using a chemically-balanced diet of carbohydrates, fat, and protein instead of single plant rations as done in Babcock's earlier experiments. The "single-grain experiment" was thus born in 1907.

From May 1907 to 1911, the experiment was carried out with Hart as director, Babcock providing the ideas, and Humphrey overseeing the welfare of the cows during the experiment. Edwin V. McCollum, an organic chemist from Connecticut, was hired by Hart to analyze the grain rations and the cow excrement. The experiment called for four groups of four heifer calves each during which three groups were raised and two pregnancies were carried through during the experiment. The first group ate only wheat, the second group ate only bran, the third group at only corn, and the last group at a mixture of the other three.

In 1908, it was shown that the corn-fed animals were the most healthy of the group while the wheat-fed groups were the least healthy. All four groups bred during that year with the corn-fed calves being the healthiest while the wheat and mixed-fed calves were stillborn or later died. Similar results were found in 1909. In 1910, the corn-fed cows had their diets switched to wheat and the non-corn-fed cows were fed wheat. This produced unhealthy calves for the formerly corn-fed cows while the remaining cows produced healthy calves. When the 1909 formulas were reintroduced to the respective cows in 1911, the same gestation results in 1909 occurred again in 1911. These results were published in 1911. Similar results had been done in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1901, in Poland in 1910, and in England in 1906 (though the English results were not published until 1912).

This experiment would lead to the development of nutrition as a science.


After Babcock's death in 1931, his estate was left to the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agriculture. By a decision of the deans, a housing cooperative for male students studying agriculture was established in the Babcock home and named in his honor. Babcock House is the oldest continuously-operating student housing cooperative in Wisconsin and is now open to male and female students of any course of study.

In 1948, the Institute of Food Technologists created the Stephen M. Babcock Award (now the Babcock-Hart Award) in honors of Babcock's achievements. Additionally, the food science department building at the University of Wisconsin in Madison was named in Babcock's honor in 1952. The Institute of International Dairy Research and Development at Wisconsin also would be named in Babcock's honor.


  1. Linda Anderson, "Mr. Babcock's Invention." In Wisconsin History on Stage: Scripts for Grades 4-8, ed. Matt Blessing (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1999), Mr. Babcock's Invention Retrieved December 19, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anderson, Linda. Mr. Babcock's Invention. edited by Matt Blessing, Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1999. Retrieved December 19, 2007.
  • Babcock, Stephen Moulton. American National Biography, 1999
  • Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists. Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2008 ISBN 9781420072716

External links

All links retrieved February 9, 2023.


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