Searching for of a farming hero who brought soybean to US

Allan and Marion Bowen - are you there? If so, an amateur historian and the Georgia Historical Society would like to hear from you. One of your more obscure ancestors, Samuel Bowen, may be something of an agricultural hero.

According to evidence turned up by two professors at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Mr. Bowen introduced America to the soybean.

Most people probably would not even recognize the humble soybean, which is yellow and pea-size. But the equivalent of about five pounds of soybean oil will be consumed by the average American this year in foods ranging from salad oil to shortening to something called soy milk.

To agricultural experts, soybeans are a powerhouse crop. This year US farmers are bringing in an estimated 2 billion-bushel harvest, making soybeans the third-largest US crop in terms of volume.

And if Ted Hymowitz is right, Samuel Bowen was the trailblazer for the soybean's success. Mr. Hymowitz, a professor of plant genetics at the University of Illinois, is also an amateur historian.

In 1982, Hymowitz's agronomy professor, Jack Harlan of the University of Illinois, was reading over proceedings of the American Philosophical Society when he came across a note about ''samples of Chinese Vetches, six bottles of Soy and six pounds of powdered Sago (sweet potato flour) from one S. Bowen of Georgia.''

Professor Harlan's interest was piqued because the entry was made in 1769 - 35 years before soybeans were thought to have been first introduced in the US. Harlan and his student, Hymowitz, began some amateur sleuthing and finally uncovered Bowen's adventures.

According to information pieced together by Hymowitz and a colleague, Bowen was an English adventurer from Lincolnshire. In 1758 he signed on as a crew member aboard the Pitt, a 600-ton ship that sailed to Canton, China.

Once in that city, Bowen signed on with another ship, the Success, and sailed to Ningpo and Tientsin. The voyage was illegal, because the Chinese emperor had forbidden foreign entry at both ports. And Bowen apparently was caught.

Being a prisoner of the Chinese, however, proved useful to Bowen. He learned the process of making soy sauce, a much valued product in Europe. After four years in prison, he was released and, with some soybean seeds, set out for the New World. In 1764, he turned up in Savannah, Ga. - apparently eager to try growing his new seeds in a suitable climate.

The university professors conjecture that Bowen's skills as a farmer were at least matched by his ability as an entrepreneur.

In Savannah, Bowen quickly moved into the upper crust of colonial society, marrying the daughter of Savannah's collector of customs. He also bought, with the help of a financial backer, two tracts of land just east of the city.

In 1766, the soybeans - which Bowen called ''Chinese vetches'' - yielded three crops, and Bowen was on his way. His experiments with soybeans and a sweet potato flour to cure scurvy soon began to win acclaim. The Society of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce in London gave him a gold medal for his cheap and salutary foods. King George III awarded him 200 guineas. By 1770, Bowen was shipping out sweet potato flour and 162 quarts of soy sauce.

But the agricultural experiments came to an end seven years later, Professor Hymowitz says, when Bowen died, apparently during one of his frequent business trips to London. His family eventually moved to the Midwest. Hymowitz, anxious to find family records about Bowen, hopes to find some of his descendants.

He has traced the family tree to Menard Kennerly Bowen, a president of the Chicago Consolidated Street Railways Company (predecessor of the current Chicago Transit Authority). In 1912, a little over 10 years after Menard Bowen's passing , his two children, Allan and Marion, moved in with relatives in St. Louis. Because census and other records are sealed, Hymowitz has been unable to find them. He hopes that one of their descendants will contact him in Urbana.

The discovery of Samuel Bowen's achievements was an accident.

The popularization of soybeans here did not occur until the 1920s, Hymowitz says, when farmers found they could rotate the crop with corn and sell it profitably to processors who would crush it into soybean oil and meal. But to Hymowitz, discovering the forerunner of the American soybean farmer was important for other reasons. Hymowitz traveled to Savannah to visit Bowen's land , now a cemetery, and he pored over volumes of documents of the East India Company while in London on a business trip.

''We tend to take for granted the plants we eat,'' he explains. ''We tend to forget that all of these plants have a history that is intimately entwined with human culture.''

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