Ag Notes

Finding the Wild Soybean Hunter’s Plaque


Erected by the Georgia Historical Society, the Georgia/Florida Soybean Association, and the Georgia Agricultural Commodity Commission for Soybeans

Marker Text: In 1764, Samuel Bowen, a former seaman employed by the East India Company, brought soybeans (Chinese vetch) to the Georgia colony from China via London. Not having land available to sow seeds, Bowen asked Henry Yonge, the Surveyor-General of Georgia, to plant what is believed to be the first North American soybean crop in the spring of 1765.

Yonge’s property, Orangedale, was located nearby on Skidaway Island. Bowen’s successful cultivation led to a 1769 patent for the production of soy sauce for exportation to England. Soybeans in Georgia were soon eclipsed by other crops, and not widely cultivated in North America until the late 19th century. But since the 1940s, soybeans have become one of the most widely grown and lucrative cash crops in the United States.


The following is a history of the soybean as recounted by University of Illinois emeritus plant geneticist Ted Hymowitz. Over the years videographer Steve Parker and I nicknamed him “The Wild Soybean Hunter”. Hymowitz scoured Asia and Australia for wild relatives of the soybean. He found them, and brought them back to the University of Illinois for inclusion in the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection.

Today these wild soybeans are used in the University of Illinois soybean breeding program to capture favorable alleles for yield that were lost during domestication. College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences researchers are also mapping traits from wild soybean that were involved in domestication or that have significantly different phenotypes from soybean.

The first written record of the soybean dates to the 11th century BC. The plant originated in the wilds of modern day Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam. From these points it spread first to China in the north says University of Illinois Plant Geneticist Ted Hymowitz. This is where Chinese farmers adapted glycine soja or the wild annual soybean for cultivation.

It was a small black seeded wild annual. The Chinese selected for just two traits. The wild glycine soja trails and climbs. The Chinese made it an upright plant. They also selected for larger seed size. Those two traits mark the only differences between the first domesticated soybean and its wild ancestor. It happened about 3000 years ago.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the next real evolution of the soybean occurred. With the mechanization of agricultural processors, farmers and soybean breeders quickly realized a third trait had to be added to the soybean. It shattered at maturity and this was bad. Farmers needed to be able to harvest soybeans without having them pop out of the pod before they could be put into a machine. The trait was found in a soybean called CNS for Clemson non-shattering and was incorporated into all commercially grown varieties of the crop says Hymowitz.

So, domestication of the soybean started about 3000 years ago. The first written record comes from the 11th century Before Christ. The bean is derived from a wild annual called glycine soja that looks a bit like a morning glory… it’s a viney plant that climbs and trails and produces small black seeds. It can still be found today. This plant was domesticated by Chinese farmers who made it stand-upright and increased the seed size. And then, in the twentieth century, U-S farmers added a third trait. They bred the soybean so it wouldn’t shatter at harvest.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that the soybean as a crop really began to take off in the United States. This is about 200 years after it first arrived in America. The journey here from China was a long one.

In 1758 Samuel Bowen signed on as sailor for the East India Company with a ship called the Pitt. He was an Englishman. The ship sailed to India, and then on to Hong Kong. From there, says Plant Geneticist Ted Hymowitz, Samuel Bowen signed off the Pitt and onto a ship called the Success. Hymowitz and a friend spent two years tracking Mr. Bowen’s movements by researching the University of Illinois library. The Success, says Hymowitz, sailed north from Hong Kong to Tein Sein, China. It was not supposed to be in these waters and was likely scuttled by the Chinese. Samuel Bowen was imprisoned for four years.

He was eventually released and made his way back to the American colonies, in this case to Savannah, Georgia. Bowen brought with him a bag of soybeans. It was 1764.  Mr. Bowen was something of an entrepreneur. In 1767 he was issued a royal patent for soy-sauce. He’d acquired some property in Georgia, and was growing and pressing soybeans into soy-sauce on a farm he called Grenich. The sauce was grown for export to England. Bowen also pressed the soybean for oil.

Despite his death in 1777, Bowen managed to leave a legacy. The first recorded evidence of the soybean in the United States belongs to him. The minutes from a 1765 meeting of the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture acknowledges the receipt of 6 bottles of soy and seeds of Chinese vetch from Samuel Bowen. This is one story of how the soybean arrived in North America. There are others and Ted Hymowitz harbors one of them, but they cannot be proven.

So, it is a ship called the Success, Chinese imprisonment, and Samuel Bowen that are credited with the introduction of the soybean to North America in 1764. One-Hundred-Sixty-five years later two Americans set off for Asia to hunt down more types of soybean.

Just as the Great Depression was taking hold in the United States, the U-S government sent plant scientists to Japan, Korea, and northeast China on a mission. It was February 18, 1929, when Howard Dorsett of Carlinville, Illinois and Bill Morse a native of Lowville, New York set out from the states for east-Asia. The United States Department of Agriculture dispatched the two and their families on a mission to collect accessions, different types, of the soybean.

In the late 1920’s it was apparent the soybean was about to become a very important crop in the US. USDA wanted as many different versions of this Asian native as possible. Dorsett and Morse were both plant scientist. By April of 1929, they and their families had settled in Tokyo. Over the next two years the men…primarily Morse, because Dorsett fell ill with double pneumonia, collected exactly 4,451 different accessions of the soybean.

These were soybeans, says University of Illinois Plant Geneticist Ted Hymowitz, grown throughout east-Asian by native farmers. All but about 800 of the original accessions have been lost. In the 1930’s there was no germplasm repository, and Hymowitz says the seeds were probed, and if found useless, thrown away.

What happened with the collection in the 1950’s says Hymowitz was unexpected, yet predictable. He says when you collect a diverse set of materials, in this case lots of different types of soybeans, you do not know the value of the collection until something in it becomes useful.

In the 1950’s one of the accessions collected by Dorsett and Morse, a soybean called PI 88788 was found to be resistant to the soybean cyst nematode. The cyst nematode was and remains a major pest problem for U.S. farmers. The resistance found in PI 88788 is now incorporated, says Hymowitz, in 95% of the hybrids grown in the United States.

Hymowitz believes the material collected by Dorsett and Morse will become more valuable over time because it was collected before modern soybean varieties were developed. This is because we do not know what pathogens, diseases, may inflict the soybean in the future. It, therefore, is important to maintain the diversity of the remaining Dorsett and Morse accessions. Those accessions are housed at the University of Illinois in the Soybean Germplasm Collection.