(Travel Fellow, 2019-20)
A Life in Nitrogen: Travis Porter Hignett (1907-89), an Unlikely American Technocrat
N.J. Dharan is a doctoral student in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and received his undergraduate degree in chemistry and history from Washington University in St. Louis. His research lies at the intersection of the history of chemistry, agriculture, and the environment, examining the introduction of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers to late colonial India and the long-term impact this shift in agricultural practice had. More broadly, he is interested in the global history of nitrogen, which drew together scientists, colonial administrators, war planners, chemical manufacturers, farmers, and debt-bonded laborers over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
“A Life in Nitrogen,” the project for which he will be conducting research at the Linda Hall Library, explores this history through a single individual: Travis Hignett, a chemical engineer who spent the majority of his career at the Tennessee Valley Authority. By tracking the unlikely rise of a poor Iowa pastor’s son to a world-renowned authority on fertilizer technology, this project seeks to critically interrogate the construction of a technocratic identity, as well as the ways in which the shifting demands of the nitrogen problem—the scarcity of fixed nitrogen resources for fertilizer production—influenced Hignett’s professional practice.