Journal of Soils and Sediments

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 1212–1231 | Cite as

An appreciation of the contribution of Frank Stevenson to the advancement of studies of soil organic matter and humic substances

  • Michael H. B. Hayes
  • Roger S. Swift
Natural Organic Matter: Chemistry, Function and Fate in the Environment



The aims of this paper are to outline the state of knowledge with regard to the chemistry of soil organic matter (SOM) prior to 1950; then, to review and evaluate the contributions made by Frank Stevenson during Stevenson’s research period (1950–1994); and subsequently to outline advances that are being made in the modern era.

Progress in the Stevenson period

Frank Stevenson’s research career began in the middle of the twentieth century when a number of techniques of colloid chemistry were available to him, but relatively few of the recently developed instrumental techniques and other procedures of analytical organic chemistry that have enabled significant advances to be made in the chemistry and properties of SOM components.The contributions that Frank Stevenson has made to the chemistry of SOM and of humic substances (HSs) are an integral part of his book (first and second editions) Humus Chemistry: Genesis, Composition, Reactions. The validity of the terms humus and HSs are being questioned as legitimate terms that describe definable components, and SOM is being viewed as a ‘continuum of progressively decomposing organic compounds’. The legitimacy of isolating the organic matter components from their native soil environment is questioned. Those who pose such questions would do well to consider how progress could have been made in the vital life sciences areas of, for example, proteomics and genomics, without the isolation of the relevant cellular components. We recognise the importance of clear and rigorous definitions of HS components and stress the need to isolate these components from the SOM matrix as a prerequisite to the study of the composition, structure and reactivity of these components. We disagree with proposals or suggestions that do not recognise HSs as a scientific entity, and we feel sure that Frank Stevenson would have supported this stance. Various studies of SOM and of HSs have taken place over the centuries, but progress was slow because the tools required to study such complex systems were not available. Frank Stevenson’s research involved many areas of humic chemistry, and his major advances were in aspects of functionality and in the interactions of humic functional groups with metals and to a lesser extent with anthropogenic organic chemicals. His studies of nitrogen and of ammonia in relation to organic matter also had a very great impact.

Progress in the modern era

Frank Stevenson can be said to have provided the stimulation that enabled beginners and established scientists to obtain a good grasp of the fundamentals of SOM and the humic sciences. His scientific contributions have catalysed many of the significant advances that have been made in the field since he retired. In the final section, some of the advances that have been made using modern analytical techniques are addressed and some of the controversial topics that have recently arisen are discussed.


Fulvic acid Humeomics Humic acid Humic composition Humic science Humic substances Humification Humin Humus Isolation Molecular associations Soil nitrogen Soil organic matter Stevenson 


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chemical SciencesUniversity of LimerickLimerickIreland
  2. 2.Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food InnovationUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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