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Stevenson, William Henry

Published onOct 15, 2021
Stevenson, William Henry

(September 4, 1872 – January 7, 1951)

Quick Facts

Agronomy faculty member and a pioneer and guiding influence in soil conservation work.

William Henry Stevenson was born to Henry Staley and Louisa S. Stevenson of Freeport, Ill., on Sept. 4, 1872. He received his AB (1893) from Illinois College, his BS (1905) from Iowa State College (now University), and his DS (1923) from Illinois College. Stevenson was hired by Iowa State and served as Professor (1902-1910) of soils and later as Professor (1910-1938) and Head (1910-1932) of farm crops and soils. 

Although born and schooled in Illinois, Stevenson spent most of his adult life in Iowa where he was a pioneer and guiding influence in soil conservation work. He is perhaps best known for instituting and supervising county soil surveys, having authored numerous survey reports and bulletins on soil fertility. Of particular note is the bulletin by Stevenson, “The Principle Soil Areas of Iowa” released in 1905, which was the first publication of Iowa State College’s three year old Agronomy Department, and defined the soil areas of the state. In that same year, Stevenson graduated from Iowa State College (ISC) with a BS in Agriculture.

World War I created an impetus to increase food production. One effort toward this end was to drain much of Iowa’s wetland to provide more rich, tillable land. Most of the north central part for the state was drained at this time. Organization of the Iowa drainage districts came under Stevenson’s direction. He further promoted proper tillage, liming, and crop rotation and was an active participant in the Grange.

William H. Stevenson (Head, Department of Agronomy, 1909-1932), 2018 by Liza Amir (American, born 1982). Oil on canvas. Commissioned by University Museums and the Department of Agronomy. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2018.216

As a professional, Stevenson rose through the ranks of the Agronomy Department at ISC. When Perry G. Holden left ISC in 1906, Stevenson began a reorganization. Agricultural engineering, soil bacteriology, and farm management were added to the curriculum. The latter became a separate Department of Agricultural Economics in 1916. Student enrollment increased rapidly and the scope of the teaching program was greatly expanded.

During Stevenson’s tenure at ISC, there was a major effort to promote high quality research and he became visible as secretary of a science club formed by faculty members and experiment station staff in 1910. Faculty publications were promoted and his bulletin on the soils of Iowa was described as “an authority a classic in this department of the State’s agricultural work.” In recognition of his contributions to soil survey work, he was appointed vice-director of the agriculture experiment station as it became systematized and extended its range of investigation.

Three times Stevenson went to Europe as a member of the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome. In 1921 Stevenson was appointed by U.S. President Warren G. Harding as a permanent delegate (1921-1922) to the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome, Italy. The Institute served as the advisory body on agricultural subjects for the League of Nations with responsibility for the collection and dissemination of agricultural, statistical, technical and economic information form the 71 member nations. Appointed as an official representative of the US in 1921-11, 1924 and 1934, he followed the formal meetings with inspections of agricultural research work at Paris, Geneva, and other European experiment stations. The trips were not all work for Stevenson and his wife, however. His archival papers contain numerous pictures and tourist memorabilia of the places they visited.

Raising plants was both profession and hobby for the ISC professor. At home, the Stevensons were known for their beautiful flower gardens, which were sometimes opened for visitors. On one such occasion, the focus was on an old Russian olive tree, a 20-year old wisteria, large-bloomed iris and peonies interplanted with columbine.

Stevenson married Rosalthea Coffin Scott in 1904. They had no children. Stevenson died on Jan. 7, 1951, and was buried at the Iowa State University cemetery.

Selections of text republished with permission from Iowans who made a difference: 150 years of agricultural progress by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, published by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, 1996. 

Selected Sources

William H. Stevenson papers, RS 09/09/12, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library.


“Announcement of the Graduate Division” Graduate College, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1915.

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