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Bliss, Ralph Kenneth

Published onJul 29, 2021
Bliss, Ralph Kenneth

(October 30, 1880 – April 16, 1972)

Quick Facts

The first director of the Cooperative Extension Service, Bliss was tasked with leading Extension through both World Wars and the Great Depression.


Dr. Ralph K. Bliss, B.A. in animal husbandry, 1905; director of Extension, 1914-1946, 1943 by Othmar Hoffler (American, 1893 - 1954). Oil on canvas. Commissioned by Iowa State University. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U93.19

Bliss was born near Diagonal, Iowa, to Horace and Mary (Day) Bliss. He attended the Diagonal public schools and graduated from Iowa State College (ISC, now University) in 1905 with a degree in agronomy. He managed the family's farm for one year, but in 1906, when the Iowa legislature created the Iowa Extension Service, Bliss returned to ISC to head Extension's animal husbandry department; he also served one year as acting superintendent of the Iowa Extension Service. In 1912 he accepted an offer to head the University of Nebraska's animal husbandry department. That year he married Ethel McKinley, also an ISC graduate.

Bliss in 1910 instructing on one of Iowa State’s “Corn Trains”. Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library.

In 1914, when Congress passed the Smith-Lever Cooperative Extension Act, Bliss returned to ISC to become the first director of the Cooperative Extension Service. He remained in that position for 32 years, retiring in 1946. Under Bliss's tutelage, the ISC Cooperative Extension Service was viewed as one of the best in the nation and served as a model for Extension Service programs in other states. He guided the service through three major events: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Colleagues hailed his exemplary leadership qualities and innovative methods.

During World War I, the slogan "Food will win the war!" was heard everywhere. The newly organized Cooperative Extension Service had the main responsibility for organizing Iowans' wartime effort to conserve food and increase food production. Bliss also served as secretary of Iowa's War Emergency Food Committee, which laid out statewide wartime food and agricultural goals. Both town and country residents were asked to plant victory gardens, conserve food, and preserve as much food as possible, while the state's farmer produced record yields in corn, oats, wheat, barley, and rye. Hog production rose some 15 percent during the war. A major problem facing Extension was the timely dispensing of agricultural and home economics information to the state's farm families. Bliss solved that problem by setting up the War Food Production Cooperators, whereby some 1,400 cooperators statewide passed along information from the federal and state extension services to farm families.

During the 1920s, specialists were added at the state level in home economics, crop and livestock production, and 4-H. In the same decade, Bliss appointed a rural sociologist to promote educational and social programs for farm families, and a landscape architecture specialist to help farm families with landscaping. Iowa was one of the first states to do so.

During the Great Depression, even though the Extension Service was faced with financial problems, Bliss promoted a five-point program: efficient agricultural production, better agricultural marketing, home project work, club work for boys and girls, and community organization. The Extension Service played a major role in helping Iowa farmer sign up for the acreage reduction program under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. In the 1930s Bliss also began a weekly radio program over WOI that he continued into the mid 1960s, well past his retirement. By the late 1930s, Bliss and other Extension personnel were promoting soil conservation measures that they continued to emphasize during and after the war.

The greatest test for both Bliss and Cooperative Extension came during World War II. Then, as in World War I, food production was essential for an Allied victory. Bliss's experience as Extension director in World War I was invaluable in helping solve production problems in World War II. By 1942 most programs not directly related to the war were eliminated. County Extension personnel helped farmer locate farm laborers and promoted the sale of war bonds. Farmer increased their yields every year during the war.

Ralph K. Bliss, Director of Agricultural Extension at Iowa State, 1950 by Christian Petersen (Danish - American, 1885 - 1961). Plaster, painted. Gift of the Friends of the University Museums. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U89.27

Throughout his life, Bliss was an innovator. On his family's farm, after studying swine production at ISC, he constructed A-frame swine shelters. Local farmer belittled the effort but quickly learned that Bliss's shelters resulted in a higher number of pigs per litter. During the 1920s, he revived the earlier touring exhibits on crops, crop use, and pork production. Bliss developed cow testing associations to help farmer increase milk production, and he was one of the first in Extension to write and disseminate Extension publications. He was also a leader in the short course and farm institute movement, sometimes planting test plots himself.

In 1946 Bliss retired as Extension Service director but continued to promote Extension programs and soil conservation measures through his radio addresses. In 1952 he edited The Spirit and Philosophy of Extension Work, as Recorded in Significant Extension Papers, and in 1960 he published his History of Cooperative and Home Economics Extension in Iowa—the First Fifty Years. He received many honors, including the American Farm Bureau Federation's Distinguished Service to American Agriculture Award; Honorary Master Swine Producer; Alumni Merit Award, ISC; National Citation for Leadership in 4-H Club Work; Outstanding Leadership in Soil Conservation State Conservation Committee; American Country Life Association's Award for Outstanding Contribution to Rural Life (twice); ISC Faculty Citation; and Epsilon Sigma Phi National distinguished Service Ruby Award. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Iowa State College in 1958.

Bliss died in Ames in 1972. He is interred at the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

The Bliss Papers, 1904–1971, and his "Addresses and Radio Talks" (1932–1968) are in RS 16/03/13, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames

Some Bliss correspondence is also found in ISU's University Archives in other collections, such as the Duane E. Dewel Papers, 1955–1968, and the Robert Earle Buchanan Papers, 1901–1972.

See also "Ralph K. Bliss," in Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, Iowans Who Made a Difference: 150 Years of Agricultural Progress (1996).

Schwieder, Dorothy. "Bliss, Ralph Kenneth" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 1 June 2017

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