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James Wilson | Inducted by 1920

Farmer, statesman and the longest-serving U.S. Cabinet member in American history.

1835-1920 | Artist: Robert Wadsworth Grafton (1876-1936)

Impact & Accomplishments

The longest-serving U. S. Cabinet member in American history, James Wilson was Secretary of Agriculture for sixteen consecutive years under Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft.

Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, his family immigrated to America in 1851 and permanently settled in Iowa four years later, establishing a farm in Tama County. He briefly attended Iowa College (now Grinnell).

Wilson began his political career in the Iowa House of Representatives in 1867, rising to speaker. He then became a professor of agriculture at Iowa State College, where he encouraged student George Washington Carver.

In 1872, Wilson was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, where he became known as “Tama Jim” to distinguish him from the Iowa Senator James F. Wilson. Representative Wilson served two terms, and then returned home to accept an appointment to the Iowa State Railroad Commission.

From 1891 to 1897, he was professor of agriculture and director of the agriculture experiment station at Iowa State, helping to redefine the agriculture curriculum and establishing a dairy school. Graduate George Washington Carver was hired as the school’s first African American faculty member at this time.

Jim Wilson returned to Washington again when President William McKinley named him Secretary of Agriculture in 1897. Under Secretary Wilson’s leadership, food inspection methods were codified, experiment stations were established, rural roads were improved, farm demonstration work was inaugurated in the South, extension work in agriculture and home economics was begun, and soil and forest conservation were advanced. The number of employees serving the Department of Agriculture grew more than fivefold during his tenure. Wilson retired to Tama County in 1913.

Did You Know?

Built in 1969, Wilson Hall is a residence hall at Iowa State University named in Wilson's honor.

"He was one of the finest teachers that it has ever been my privilege to listen to." ~ George Washington Carver

Video credit: Mark Watson

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