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A Brief History of Soil Science

For six millennia we have tilled, drained, and irrigated soils for agriculture. For even a longer period of time humans have used soils as a construction material. Four thousand years ago the Chinese were classifying soils according to their productivity and using it as a basis for tax assessment (Ping-Hua Lee, 1921; Finkl, 1982, p. 1). There should be no doubt that throughout early human history, classification systems were developed to distinguish among the soils that are important to human lives.

The study of soil as a science is a recent advancement. The fields of chemistry, geography, and geology began to emerge following the Renaissance, chemistry being accepted as a science in the 17th century. In the 18th century geographers were classifying and mapping soils in Great Britain. By the 19th century geology could no longer be held back by religious dogma and all the needed disciplines were in place for the scientific study of soils. In 1862, Friedrich Fallou coined the term pedology for the scientific study of soils. In 1876, an interdisciplinary commission was organized in Russia to study the chernozioum soil. Through this collaboration the geologist-geographer Vasili Dokuchaev developed the fundamentals of soil investigation. Numerous other scientists (e.g., Konstantin Glinka, Curtis Marbut, and Eugene Hilgard) made their contributions to the development of soil science over the years. In 1941, Hans Jennys presented the conceptual equation S = f (cl, o, r, p, t, ...), where soil (S) is a function of climate (cl), organisms (o), relief or topography (r), parent material (p), time (t), and unspecified factors (...), one of which includes human activities. His equation and book (Jenny, 1941) synthesized the concepts of the time and formed a paradigm of soil science that is still followed today. Finkl (1982) and Amundson et al. (1994) give a more complete history of soil science.


Anundson, R.G., J.W. Harden, and M.J. Singer, eds. (1994). Factors of soil formation: A fiftieth anniversary retrospective. Madison Wis.: Soil Science Society of America. 160 p.

Finkl, C.W. (1982). Soil classification. Stroudsburg, Pa.: Hutchinson Ross Publishing Company. 391 p.

Jenny, H. (1941). Factors of soil formation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ping-Hua Lee, M. (1921). The economic history of China with special reference to agriculture. Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law. 99:1-461.

Text by Joe Tabor
Last revised: Last revised: 27 August 2001
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