ICI Exhibition Booklet - Flipbook - Page 13
Agrochemicals: changing the face of agriculture
‘My ideal is to see... our great organisation controlling the production and sales of the whole
chemical manufacture within the Empire. For this purpose we must take into our services the
best brains available’
– Sir Alfred Mond, on ICI agriculture research
Agriculture was regarded as a major target market from ICI’s
inception, with fertiliser and crop protection businesses going
on to play significant roles as the company grew. Sir Alfred
Mond was keen to ensure that sound science was behind ICI
products and their marketing. Jealott’s Hill in Berkshire was
chosen as the site for the company’s agricultural research
centre. The first aims involved demonstrating how intensive
use of nitrogen fertiliser could stimulate grass production to
support the raising of cattle for meat and milk. Later, during
WWII, research on chemicals to stimulate crop growth resulted
in the discovery of herbicides.
Jealotts Hill 1934, Britain From Above
Methoxone – the first hormone weedkiller
In the 1930s, Jealott’s Hill scientists, led by WG Templeman, observed
that the plant growth hormone NAA did not always stimulate growth,
but could depress it. Furthermore, this inhibition of growth was seen
more on broadleaved weeds than on grass species, including crops such
as wheat. Testing brought to light:
2,4-D (simultaneously discovered in the US)
Field trials were conducted under wartime secrecy and, in
1946, a dust formulation of MCPA, Methoxone, was quickly
followed to market by a liquid formulation, Agroxone. Hormone
weedkillers had widespread impact – particularly as herbicides for
cereals – having only one major drawback: they were ineffective
Gammexane – a powerful insecticide
Jealotts Hill 1953, Britain From Above
Paraquat – chemical ploughing for arable crops
Eight years after a field observation in 1947, ICIs ‘weed killer
programme’ determined that quaternary ammonium salts were
highly herbicidal. Quickly, two of the salts stood out: diquat and
paraquat. Dr William Boon was the architect of this work and later
recalled that diquat had been labelled with the completely wrong
structure. Had it been correct, it never would have been choosen.
Management were unconvinced about a non-selective herbicide that
was left inactive in soil, and Boon alone pushed for his discovery.
ICI was testing benzene hexachloride (BHC) as moth repellents as early
as 1930. By 1942, it was discovered as a general insecticide.
‘The fact that they aren’t selective and don’t stay in the soil
isn’t a disadvantage. It’s the biggest advantage ever!’
With much excitement one Saturday morning, a sample of the compound
was sifted in a room where locusts were being kept in a cage – by Monday
morning, all had died. After undergoing wider tests, it was proved to be
fatal to most insects.
(In fact, they are bound extremely tightly to soil and thereby
inactivated). The project was given the green light and, for his insight,
ICI created the ‘Boon award for perseverance’, part funded by Boon
ICI launched gammexane just after DDT had been introduced, squashing
market potential. In response, a Pest Control Panel was set up such that
future products would not suffer from lack of organisation.
In August 1962, Paraquat was launched as ‘Gramoxone’. Boon
realised that using Paraquat to kill all weeds could replace the need
to plough, which is expensive and time consuming. New heavy-duty
seed drills were designed to place seed in untilled ground and the
innovative new technique of Direct Drilling was introduced. In the
USA, where it has become widely adpoted, it is known as No-till.
Used in 120 countries by millions of farmers, Paraquat was one of
ICI’s most important products and one of the reasons Brazil was able
to become and maintain its placement as a major exporter of soya
Dr William Boon and Dr Sydney Andrew, Senior Research Associate of ICI,
were both life members of SCI.
Dr Sydney Andrew was also the recipent of SCI’s top medal, the SCI Society
Medal, in 1989. He bequeathed part of his estate to SCI to found the Sydney
Andrew Medal Lecture, presented every third year on the theme of neglected
science; areas of science which, though of importance in agriculture and the
chemical industry, receive scant attention from academic research, and for
academic research into neglected science.