Known for inventing a test for measuring the butterfat content in milk as well as for the single-grain experiment, which led to the development of the field of nutritional science.
1843-1931 | Artist: Robert Wadsworth Grafton (1876-1936)
Impact & Accomplishments
Best known for the milkfat test that bears his name, Dr. Stephen Moulton Babcock was a chemist who helped advance agricultural science at a critical time, when the dairy industry was shifting from individual family dairies to factory dairies that combined the milk production of multiple farms.
Born in Bridgewater, New York, Babcock studied at Tufts and Cornell universities, earning his doctorate from the University of Gottingen, Germany, in 1879. At the start of his career, he taught at Cornell and began milk analysis work at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.
In 1887, he moved to the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. There, he perfected the Babcock test, adding sulphuric acid to milk samples to dissolve all solids but fat, then spinning the samples in a centrifuge, to force the fat to the top where it could be easily measured. The test revolutionized the industry, allowing farmers to select for richer milk characteristics, factories to compare milk sources and produce consistent products, and the market to establish fair milk prices according to quality. Dr. Babcock refused to file for a patent and profit from his invention, but he received multiple awards and prizes at international expositions for two decades.
Stephen Babcock also expanded the scientific understanding of the cheese ripening process and helped develop the cold storage method of curing cheese. He convinced Dean William Henry to allow him to conduct the “single-grain experiment,” comparing the health of cattle fed a single plant ration only. He also tested the effects of trace butter and vegetable fats in the diets of laboratory rats. These experiments paved the way for the discoveries of Vitamins A and D and helped developed nutrition as a science. Dr. Babcock was inducted into the National Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1984.
Did You Know?
The Babcock test was widely accepted by 1892. Babcock improved it over the years, refining the test as late as 1910. In view of the vast increase in milk output in the United States (ninefold growth between 1870 and 1900), Babcock's test was equaled as a technical advance in dairying only by the centrifugal cream separator. He refused a patent on the test, although it saved millions of dollars for American dairymen by providing data to improve stockbreeding and by cutting butterfat loss in cream separation. The Capper Award in 1930, worth $5,000, was the sole direct monetary gain he received for his discovery.
A few months before his death, on July 2, 1931, the New York Legislature honored Babcock with a bill to preserve his birthplace, the farm at Babcock Hill, Bridgewater.
Professor Stephen Babcock with his centrifuge machine. Photo courtesy of UW Digital Archives.
The Babcock Dairy Plant and Store have a long and rich history on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus since 1951. They produce signature dairy products for the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the surrounding community. Through this, the Babcock Dairy Plant and Dairy Store help support the University of Wisconsin Food Science Department’s mission of research, teaching and outreach. Most know Babcock Hall for its ice cream, but the plant also produces award-winning cheeses and bottles locally produced milk.
Courtesy of Wisconsin 101. Watch University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Emeritus David L. Nelson (Biochemistry) describe the history and science behind the famous Babcock butterfat tester.