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Bremner, John M. "Jack"

Published onJul 30, 2021
Bremner, John M. "Jack"

(Jan. 18, 1922 - July 25, 2007)

Quick Facts

Bremner’s work had a profound effect on the development of fertilizers and led to his interest in environmental pollution caused by agricultural practices.



Jack Bremner was an internationally renowned scientist who changed the way the world’s scientists studied soil. During his career he developed new techniques for investigating the organic composition of soils and was the first to describe the nitrogen and sulfur cycles.

John “Jack” McColl Bremner was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1922. He studied chemistry at Glasgow University and graduated summa cum laude in 1944. He received a Carnegie Research Fellowship (1944-1945) for studying organic chemistry at Glasgow University and earned his PhD in chemistry from London University in 1948. He later received a DSc in 1959.

Bremner began his professional career at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in England as an organic chemist. His first assignment was to characterize the organic substances in soil. He quickly realized that the soil analysis methods available to him at the time were inadequate, so he designed his own techniques. Bremner devoted his efforts to identifying the numerous nitrogen compounds that are found in soil. He understood that these compounds make up a substantial proportion of soil organic matter and also play a vital role in soil fertility. It was here at Rothamsted that Bremner first was able to develop a model for the nitrogen cycle, which describes how nitrogen is converted between its various chemical forms through physical and biological processes.

Adapting techniques that were used in other fields of scientific study, such as paper chromatography and ion exchange chromatography, Bremner pioneered their use in the study of soils. Using these methods, Bremner was able to provide scientists around the world with a better understanding of the nitrogen cycle. In the process he became one of the foremost authorities on organic soil compounds. When he joined the agronomy faculty at Iowa State University in 1959, Bremner already had an impressive list of achievements to his name.

At Iowa State, Bremner continued to push the boundaries of scientific soil analysis. He investigated nitrogen and sulfur transformations in soil, he worked to improve the effectiveness of fertilizers, and he studied environmental pollution caused by agricultural sources. In fact, he was among the first scientists to study agricultural causes of water and air pollution and specifically worked to reduce the amount of pollution caused by nitrogen fertilizers. His research had a direct impact on fertilizer usage in the United States during a time when the country was in the midst of developing policies to combat greenhouse gas emissions. Bremner’s research helped prevent a widespread ban on the use of nitrogen fertilizers when he proved that they do not significantly increase soil emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.

At the height of his career it could have been argued that Bremner was the most accomplished soil scientist in the world. Many of the methods and techniques he developed for the analysis of soils became standard practice throughout the country and the world. Starting with his first published work in 1946, Bremner contributed over 300 published works during the course of his career. His work was so highly regarded by the scientific community that during his career he was among the most extensively cited scientists in the world according to the Science Citation Index. His expertise was is such demand that he was invited to over two dozen countries and spent significant periods of time in Yugoslavia, Germany, Great Britain, and Australia.

Bremner received an impressive number of awards and recognitions throughout his career. Some of the more significant awards he received were the Soil Science Achievement Award from the American Society of Agronomy; the Alexander von Humboldt Medal and Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; the Bouyoucos Distinguished Career Award from the Soil Science Society of America; the Iowa Governor's Science Achievement Medal from the State of Iowa; the Harvey Wiley Medal and Award from the Association of Official Analytical Chemists; and both the Spencer Medal and Award and the Award for Advancement of Agricultural and Food Chemistry from the American Chemical Society. Iowa State University recognized his important contributions by naming him a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture. The American Society of Agronomy, the American Association for Advancement of Science, the Soil Science Society of America, and the American Academy of Microbiology named him as a fellow. Bremner was honored as a Distinguished Fellow of the Iowa Academy of Science in 1984 and that same year became the first soil scientist ever elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Bremner retired from teaching at Iowa State in 1992. However, he continued conducting research and writing about different aspects of the nitrogen cycle for several more years. During his career at Iowa State, he developed and taught courses on advanced soil biochemistry, he mentored over 20 graduate students, and he attracted international researchers to Iowa State to study and learn from him.

In 1950, Bremner married Eleanor Mary Williams of Luton, England. Together they had two children. Bremner passed away in 2007 and was buried at the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selected Sources

John M. Bremner Papers, RS 9/9/59, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

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