The Soybean Plant: Botany, Nomenclature, Taxonomy, Domestication, and Dissemination - Page 4

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi


A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, Californi

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North America has no indigenous soybeans. The earliest date of arrival is highly speculative; it may have been as early as 1565, was probably no later than 1780, and was definitely prior to 1804.

Put Hymowitz findings on pre-1776 Soybeans and Benjamin Franklin here??

The soybean was first mentioned in an American publication in 1804 by Dr. James Mease of Philadelphia. (This early date was first cited by Morse in 1918A). At the end of an article on soy sauce in The Domestic Encyclopedia, edited by A.F.M. Willich, he noted in passing, "The Soy-bean bears the climate of Pennsylvania very well. The bean ought therefore to be cultivated." In his subsequent book Archives of Useful Knowledge (1910; Ref??), Mease added, "The editor has the satisfaction to assure them that the bean, Deliches Soyae bears the climate of Pennsylvania well." Dr. Mease, who served for many years as the secretary and then vice president of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (established in Philadelphia in 1785), was especially interested in the introduction of plants from abroad (Hymowitz and Newell 1977).

Where did Mease get his soybeans? Dies (1942) stated, without citation: "Soybeans were first brought to the US as ballast on a sailing ship in 1804??" Without further evidence, this statement cannot be accepted as historical fact. In 1957 W.H. Camp first suggested a connection between Benjamin Franklin and the introduction of the soybean: "Benjamin Franklin sent seeds to this country from France in the late 18th century and a sea captain who bought soybeans for his ship's stores introduced the plant about 1800." Again, no citations are given. During the 1970s Hymowitz, without knowledge of Camp's statement but aware of Franklin's interest in plant introduction, began to search Franklin's letters for a mention of soybeans. He found (1977) that:

Benjamin Franklin, who was the American Ambassador to France from 1778-1785, befriended Compte du Buffon (director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where the first soybean in France were grown) and arranged for seed exchanges between the two countries. The documented evidence for seed exchanges between France and the United States is quite good. In 1787, Buffon wrote a letter to Franklin in Philadelphia acknowledging the seeds and rare plants sent to him from the United States. In 1780, a letter written to Franklin's grandson William Temple Franklin from de Malesherbes in Paris mentions the shipment of three packets of seeds of plants unknown in the United States. The introduced seed from France was shipped to Philadelphia and planted in the botanic garden.

The list of seed received in the US is not in Franklin's papers. A study is now planned of the records of the Jardin des Plantes to search for information on what exactly was shipped to the US by Buffon. Nevertheless, since Franklin lived in Philadelphia and had seeds sent there from France, and since the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture promoted the introduction of seeds from Europe, it seems likely that Franklin and Mease, an officer of the Society, knew one another or were at least aware of each other's activities. (It is not known whether or not Franklin was a member of the Society). Hymowitz concludes that the soybeans referred to by Mease in 1804 and 1810 were probably those Franklin had sent to Philadelphia. Thus the soybean was probably introduced to America by 1780 or 1787.

Actually, however, Hymowitz (1981a??) thinks that the soybean was probably introduced to North America at yet a much earlier date, perhaps as early as 1565, through the first Chinatown in the New World, which was in Acapulco, Mexico. The trade route between Acapulco and Manila, then on to China, was the longest continuous shipping route known, enduring 250 years, from 1565-1815. Three to four ships a year transported Jesuits to Manila; Chinese seamen were pressed into service to replenish lost Spanish sailors for the return voyage. In Seville, Spain, Hymowitz searched actual ship records for a reference to soybeans, but none was found. However, since a Chinatown with Chinese having no soybeans and no soyfoods is highly unlikely, there is an excellent probability that soybeans were introduced to North America during the 16th or 17th centuries, long before the time of Franklin and Mease. Here is a fertile area for further research.

The basic work of elucidating the history of soybeans in America from 1804 to the 1920s was done by Piper and Morse (1910, 1923), with some later expansion by Probst and Judd (1973). The second mention of the soybean in American literature is by Thomas Nuttall (1829), who grew a variety with chocolate-brown seeds in the botanic garden at Cambridge, Massachusetts. He noted that:

the soy bean . . . (Dolichos soja) . . . is said to be indigenous to India and Japan, where, as well as in China and Cochin-China, it is very generally cultivated for food and probably preferred for its great productiveness . . . Whether in this country, where so many fine legumes are cultivated, it might be esteemed for food, is doubtful; the experiment may easily be made. But its principal recommendation at present is only as a luxury, affording the well known sauce called Soy, which at this time is only prepared in China and Japan--that of the latter country being usually preferred.

He then gave a description of how soy sauce is made.

In the same journal two years later (New England Farmer; Hymowitz 1831), an anonymous Massachusetts farmer, listing only his initial H., mentioned that he obtained and grew seeds of "Dolichos soja or soy bean plant" from Mr. Nuttall. He noted, "I do not know whether they have been introduced into domestic use as a culinary pulse; but should their qualities be good they cannot fail of being generally cultivated on account of their great productiveness."

No further mention of the soybean appears in American literature until 1853, when Ernst of Cincinnati, in the first report from the Midwest, noted the soybean's growing popularity: "The Japan pea, in which so much interest has been manifested in this country for a year or two past, from its hardihood to resist drought and frost, together with its enormous yield, appears to be highly worthy of the attention of agriculturalists. This plant is stated to be of Japan origin, having been brought to San Francisco about three years since, and thence into Illinois and Ohio.

Another early introduction of soybeans into the US was by the Perry Expedition to Japan in 1853 and 1854. (This same expedition broke Japan's 214-year isolation from the outside world, which propelled the country in the modern world). Perry took along a plant collector, D.J. Browne, who noted in 1854) that two varieties of Soja bean, one "white"- and the other "red"-seeded, both used by the Japanese for making soy, were procured by the expedition. (Piper and Morse, 1910, thought that the red seeded bean may have been an azuki bean). The beans were soon?? grown out in the US and distributed to interested farmers by the US Commissioner of Patents. Prior to the establishment of the US Department of Agriculture by President Abraham Lincoln in 186??, information about soybeans was published in the annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents (Agriculture); here there appeared the reports by Ernst (1854) and Browne (1855) mentioned above, as well as those by Danforth of Connecticut (1855) and by Victor and Pratt of New York (both 1855). Haywood (1854), T.V.P. (1855), and the American Agriculturalist (1857, 1874) referred to the Japan pea and its potential as a crop. According to T.E.W. (1854) the Japan pea had not been tested sufficiently in the US to determine its merits. Joynes (American Agriculturalist 1857) was one of the crop's first critics:

We first saw them (Japan peas) cooked, upon the table of a friend, and were not especially pleased with the flavor. As we have seen them growing, the large spreading branches, the hard woody character of the stalks, which unfit them for feeding, and the small number of peas in the pods, seem to be against their adaptedness to general cultivation.

In 1878 soybeans obtained from Vienna and Bavaria, probably beans from Professor Haberlandt's experiments, were grown at the Rutger's Agricultural Farm in New Jersey (Cook 1879, 1881). The 1879 report is the first reference to soybeans having been tested at a scientific agricultural college in the US. In the report is a long translation of portions of Haberlandt's article "On the Cultivation of the Hirsute Soja Bean."

Until about 1880 soybeans continued to be regarded as a botanical curiosity from the Orient, at which time they began to be looked up as having agricultural possibilities in America (Morse 1926).

During the 1880s and 1890s soybeans were tested throughout the US, mostly at university agricultural experiment stations. The evaluation of the crop's potential were generally positive. In 1881 McBryde grew an unnamed variety of soybeans at the University of Tennessee and commented on the remarkably good yield. In 1882 he grew seeds imported from China and reported, "The plant is one of decided promise." America's first major soybean producing state was North Carolina. In 1882 C.W. Dabney Jr. of the North Carolina Experiment Station, reported that:

This plant has been tried by a number of persons in different sections of the state and is favorably considered by them. It appears to be well adapted to our climate and soils, and yields very well. It produces many more bushels per acre of beans than can be obtained of cow peas or any other kind of bean known to us . . . the Soja far surpasses the cotton seed in yield of protein and fat per acre.

He also commented on food uses of the soybean. Dabney, later US Secretary of Agriculture??, encouraged John Harvey Kellogg to develop meat analogs?? (see Chapter 41.2).

In 1883 Sturtevant first reported that soybeans had been grown at Cornell University, which would later become a pioneer in soyfoods research. The few soybeans, obtained from a Japanese student, resulted in a crop "of excellent promise as a forage plant, even if the beans are not acceptable to the palate." Soybeans were also grown at Cornell in 1883 and 1884. Other reports during the 1880s were by the Rural New Yorker (1882), Goessmann of the Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station (1889, 1890), McBryde of the South Carolina Experiment Station (1890), Hayward of the Maryland Experiment Station (1889, 1890, 1891), and Shelton et al. (1889) and Georgeson (1890, 1891), both of the Kansas Experiment Station.

After 1890 most of the agricultural experiment stations had begun experimenting with soybeans and many bulletins had been published dealing wholly or partly with the new crop (Piper and Morse 1910); there was a marked increase in interest in soybean cultivation. They were grown in various locations for hay and as a green manure crop to restore soil fertility. In 1893 they were exhibited as a botanical curiosity at the spectacular Chicago World's Fair. Probst and Judd (1973) list 55?? references to the soybean as a crop plant in the US prior to 1900; 29 of these (52%) were reports on adaptability and yields done during the 1890s. Hymowitz (1981; personal communication) reports having found 200 references to the soybean in the US prior to 1900, in preparation for an article on the history during this period.

In Illinois, America's leading soybean producing state from 1924-1979, soybeans were first grown experimentally at a rather late date, 1896, when Hopkins reported on "soja bean ensilage." In 1897 a circular, "The Cow Pea and the Soja Bean" was published by Professor E. Davenport, director of the university's agricultural experiment station. However the value of the soybean as a crop for Illinois was not unanimously accepted. Hymowitz and Newell (1977) noteed that in 1899 an Illinois farmer, L.S. Robertson wrote:

The soja bean has been but recently introduced from Japan into our Northern States. It is not a success in the South. Like the Cowpea, it will grow on any soil, and it is relished by stock both for its seeds and vines. The hay is inferior to that of the Cowpea on account of its heavy woody stems and because the leaves rapidly fall off. Like the Cowpea also, the roots are small and not much of value as a fertilizer.

The first US Department of Agriculture bulletin devoted entirely to soybeans was by Williams (1897); it concerned soybeans as a forage crop. The first agricultural experiment station bulletin concerned solely with soybeans was by Cottrell, Otis, and Haney (1900) of Kansas; it concerned culture, cost of production, and livestock feeding. It is important to note that prior to 1900 the soybean was seen primarily as a forage crop; animals would graze the whole plant. To a lesser extent the harvested seeds were used in animal feeds. There was virtually no interest in the plant as a source of food for humans.

America's growing interest in the soybean was accomplished by a growing recognition of the need to acquire new varieties suited to the nation's wide range of geographical and climatic conditions. Piper and Morse (1910) reported that prior to 1898, there were no more than eight soybean varieties grown in the US, namely Ito San, Mammoth, and Butterball, all with yellow seeds; Buckshot and Kingston, with black seeds; Guelph or Medium Green, with green seeds; and Eda and Ogemaw, with brown seeds. Most of these seeds had been obtained through correspondence with missionaries (they sent Mammoth Yellow from China in 1873) and consulate officials in East Asia, or brought back by American travelers (such as Perry from Japan in 1853, Cook and Nielson from Bavaria and Vienna in 1878, Brooks from Japan in 1889, and Georgeson from Japan in 1890)

A major chapter in the soybean's history in America opened in 1897 when David Fairchild organized the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction (SPI), located within the Bureau of Plant Industry in fledgling US Department of Agriculture. During its Golden Age, from 1898-1934, the Office introduced tens of thousands of plants of all types, providing an everlasting boon to American farmers and gardeners, which we all continue to enjoy, although often without appreciating its source. The marvelous story of the men who risked their lives and found high adventure around the world to bring back new and promising plants to America is best told in Fairchild's book The World was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer (1938). The work with soybeans, including Fairchild's article "Early Experiences with the Soybean" (1948), are discussed in this work in Chapter 36. As each new seed or plant was introduced by the Office, it was registered and given a Seed and Plant Introduction Number (eg. SPI No. 22438); all of the known pertinent facts related to its origin, such as place of collection, collector, etc. were recorded. These facts proved to be of immense value to future geneticists and historians, as described above under the germplasm screening work done by Hymowitz and co-workers. The plants were then systematically propagated and samples of the more promising varieties distributed for trials to farmers and also kept in seed banks??, later called germplasm collections, where samples are still maintained.

Most of the soybean varieties introduced into the US at an early date were given names such as Early Black, Medium Green, Late Yellow, etc., one adjective referring to the period of maturity and the other to the seed color. In 1907, when the number of varieties had increased to 23 making this system unworkable, Ball, of the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry, established a new system of nomenclature and gave single-term appellations to most of the varieties, together with full keys to their identities. The keys were doubly important since some of the older varieties now had two names. After 1907, largely due to the efforts of the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction, the number of varieties began to increase rapidly, reaching 175 by 1909 and 280 by 1910. In 1910 the Mammoth (believed to be the "white-seeded" soybean brought back by Admiral Perry) was by far the most important soybean variety grown in the US followed by Ito San. The majority of soybeans at that time in the US had been introduced from China; the next largest amounts came from Japan and India and the third largest amount from Manchuria (Piper and Morse 1910). By 1913 the USDA had obtained 427 varieties and types of soybeans; the number rose to 629 by 1919, 800 by 1922, and 1,133 by 1925. These were tested in various parts of the country; by 1922 43 introductions had been found suited for production (principally forage production) and were assigned names (Piper and Morse 1923; Piper 1925). Between 1907 and 1927 the USDA introduced more than 2,000 lots of soybean seed from East Asia (Morse 1927). Dorsett (1927) collected nearly 1,500 seed lots from northeastern China (latitude 39-53*) during the 2-1/2-year period prior to 1927.

Because of the increasing interest in soybean in the US, the USDA arranged for the Dorsett-Morse Expedition to East Asia from 1929-1931. This was the only such expedition for which soybean collection was the primary objective. A total of 4,578 seed lots were collected by the expedition: 3,379 (74%) were from Korea, 622 (14%) were from Manchuria and northeast China, and 577 (13%) were from Japan. Many of the accessions from Japan were large-seeded vegetable type soybeans (Hartwig 1973; Ref??). Thus after the expedition the total number of soybean varieties in the US had skyrocketed to over 6,000.

Prior to 1949?? no organized effort had been made to maintain soybean introductions. Many varieties were discarded after their initial observation if immediate use was not recommended. In 1949 two soybean (germplasm) collections were established by the USDA, one for northern varieties (Maturity Group IV and earlier) at Urbana, Illinois, and one for southern varieties (MG V and later) at Stoneville, Mississippi. At that time USDA was able to gather from various experiment stations a total of about 1,500 varieties, including both those introduced from East Asia and those developed in the US by crossing Asian varieties. By 1980, according to Hymowitz and Newell, there were 7,181 accessions in the total US Glycine collection; roughly 70% of these were at Urbana and 30% at Stoneville. The collection was divided into five parts: foreign accessions (5,708 entries), wild soybeans (483, G. soja), domestic cultivars (353, cultivars publicly released in the US and Canada), perennial Glycine species (197, mostly from Australia), and a "genetic collection" (440). These 7,181 entries represent only about 30-40% of the soybean strains introduced into the US since the 1800s; unfortunately many introductions were lost during the 1920s and 1930s when there was no formalized group to maintain the collection. Although the US Glycine collection is one of the largest, best documented, and best maintained in the world, it is quite small when compared with similar germplasm collections of cereal grains such as rice, wheat, or sorghum, which are from two to five times larger. Other large Glycine collections are located in Taiwan (9,000 entries in Tainan), India (4,000 in Pantnagar), Japan (3,000 in Hiratsuka), and the USSR (2,500 in Leningrad); there are also 17 other smaller collections. Hymowitz at Urbana has developed a computerized?? data retrieval system for the Glycine germplasm collection. The range of variation in key soybean nutrients, based on a screening of 3,000 accessions, is discussed at the beginning of this chapter. In September 1980 Hymowitz made the first American soybean germplasm collecting trip to China in 50 years, following in the footsteps of Dorsett and Morse, whose 6,000 page diary he had studied. The result is expected to be an exchange of germplasm and scientific information about soybeans.

Many scientists think that the loss of genetic diversity in plants, caused by human population growth, monoculture farming, and modern technology, poses a grave threat to human food systems. Hence renewed efforts are being made to maintain and expand the US soybean germplasm collection, which is the raw material used by plant breeders to develop improved varieties. The seeds in the US collection are stored in coolers and grown out every five years to ensure viability.

While introducing a large number and variety of soybeans is an important first step, it is not enough. The next step is varietal development, which involves either selection or breeding. These methods of accelerating crop evolution are the work of plant breeders and geneticists. Up until the late 1920s?? most of the work involved selection; plants were simply grown out, and the highest yielding ones were propagated further. Up until the early 1920s selection was done primarily for use as a forage and hay plant, from then to the mid-1960s for use as an oilseed, and from then on for both oil and protein. During the 1930s there was also considerable work on developing large-seeded vegetable type soybeans. The primary emphasis in selection and breeding has always been to increase crop yields.

The science of genetics revolutionized soybean breeding. The founder of this science was Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), who did studies crossing peas in the garden of a monastery in Brno, in what is now Czechoslovakia. His writings, which were not understood and therefore largely ignored in his lifetime, were rediscovered in the early 1900s. The work of both Mendel and Darwin formed the basis for the study of evolution. Publications on specific soybean genes began to appear in the early 1900s. Early reviews of genetic research on soybeans were published by Owen (1928; Ref??), Matsuura (1929; Ref??), Woodworth (1932), and Morse and Cartter (1937). By finding genes that controlled certain key plant characters, soybean breeders were now able for the first time to systematically breed for desired qualities.

The first collection of soybeans known to contain certain specific genes was started in 1921 by Dr. C.M. Woodworth and Dr. L.F. Williams at the University of Illinois. This eventually formed the basis of what is called the Genetic Type Collection. In 1955 its maintenance was taken over by the US Regional Soybean Laboratory, at which time it was revised and expanded. Also in 1955 a Soybean Genetics Committee was established. Over the years there was a steady increase in the number of specific gene loci (expl??) identified in the soybean as each controlling a different trait or character; by 1980 approximately ?? such loci were known and each had been given a standard symbol. One of these, the locus controlling forms of trypsin inhibitor, was discussed above in connection with Hymowitz' historical research.

In 1936 the USDA and the state agricultural experiment stations began a cooperative for varietal development based on breeding through hybridization rather than on selection, which had been most widely used up to that time. This program and subsequent developments in varietal improvement, which had a major effect on increasing US soybean production, will be discussed in Chapter 2.

Starting in the early 1950s breeding objectives began to change from the initial primary emphasis on yield to include other traits which would help expand production, such as resistance to various diseases and to shattering and lodging, and suitability to mechanical harvesting. By the early 1970s there was a growing emphasis on breeding for seed quality rather than just quantity by altering the chemical/nutritional attributes of the seed. Breeders began working to reduce the quantity of linolenic acid, trypsin inhibitors, and lipoxygenase in soybeans and to increase the amount of protein and of methionine-cystine. Also during this time there was renewed work on development of improved vegetable type soybeans, especially by C.R. Weber of the USDA at Iowa State University, who developed Kanrich, Kim, and later Prize.

Interestingly, as the number of accessions in the US germplasm collection increased, the number of cultivated varieties decreased. This was practically ?? because more and more desirable traits were bred into a smaller and smaller number of select lines. In 1970 Clark, Mies and Hymowitz reported that 90-95% of the total US soybean acreage was seeded to varieties derived from six plant introductions, all of which originated in Manchuria (northeast China). And virtually all current varieties can be traced to a total of 11 major ancestors, all introduced from East Asia between 1901 and 1927. Chronologically they are: Tokyo 1901 Yokohama/Japan; Mandarin 1911 northeast China; Manchu 1911 Niguta/China; A.K. 1912 China; Dunfield 1913 northeast China; Arksoy 1914 Pinyang/Korea; Mukden 1920 Mukden/northeast China; P.I. 54610 1921 northeast China; Richland 1926 Changling/northeast China; Clemson 1927 Nanking/China; and Roanoke 1927 Nanking/China (Hymowitz 1981, personal correspondence). Note that none of these is from the Dorsett-Morse Expedition.

What will be the work of future soybean breeders? Surely increased emphasis on seed quality as discussed above. With the growing emphasis on using soybeans directly as foods, we may see the development of varieties especially suited for different soyfoods. In 1933 Morse wrote: "In China, Japan, Manchuria, and Korea, varieties especially suited for bean curd, bean milk, soy sauce, miso (bean paste), bean sprouts, green vegetable beans, bean flour, roasted beans, bean confections, beverages, oil and meal, and special fermented bean products, are found." Already in America tofu producers are selecting special varieties and Rodale Farms is breeding small seeded soybeans for sprouting.


Records show that the soybean had been introduced to South America via Brazil in 1882 (Da Silva Junior 1882; Ref??); it may well have been introduced via the Chinatown at Acapulco at an earlier date, as discussed above. Likewise, soybean cultivation reached Africa in the late 1800s (Burkill 1935). Details of the introduction of soybeans and soyfoods to these two areas are given in Chapter 6.

Hymowitz and Newell (1980) summarize the larger picture well in saying "By the first decade of the twentieth century, soybeans had been tested for their potential as a forage or a soil fertility restorative crop throughout North America, Europe, and many countries in Oceania, Africa, and South America."

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