An internationally known scientist, Henry Clay White served as professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia from 1872 to 1927. White was especially interested in the application of chemistry to the improvement of crops, and he advanced agricultural science and education in Georgia.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 30, 1848, White was the son of Louisa Elvira Brown and Levi Stratton White, a merchant. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1870, he worked briefly for a chemical company in Baltimore and presented lectures at the city’s Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts. In 1871-72 White served as the professor of chemistry at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, but he left at the end of the term to become professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia.
Finding poorly equipped facilities at the university, he set about to improve the situation and developed one of the better chemical laboratories in the region. Devoting considerable time to agricultural chemistry, he published a number of important studies of soil conditions and the cotton plant. He was particularly interested in improving the quality of fertilizers. In addition to his regular duties, White served as chemist for the Georgia State Geological Survey (1876-78), the state of Georgia (1880-90), and the Georgia Experiment Station (1888-1914), located in Griffin, where he also served as vice director (1891-1912).
Despite opposition from critics who disliked his liberal views and his advocacy of the theory of evolution, White was appointed in 1890 as president of the State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which was affiliated with the University of Georgia. Deflecting the efforts of some of the Trustees to make the college an entirely independent institution, he succeeded in integrating it with the university in 1906 as the College of Agriculture. He remained in his administrative post until 1907.
White’s national and international standing had continued to grow. In 1893 he was elected as a member of Britain’s Royal Chemical Society, and he was active in many professional organizations. White continued to publish articles in agricultural chemistry, and he conducted a series of important dietary studies in north Georgia. He was the recipient of six honorary doctoral degrees, the last of which was awarded by Columbia University in 1908. Concerned over increasing diplomatic tensions in the world after the turn of the century, White devoted time to the work of peace and arbitration conferences and addressed the Lake Mohonk (New York) Conference on International Arbitration in 1908 and 1912.
A confirmed proponent of the theory of evolution by 1875, White organized a conference on the topic in Athens, Georgia, in 1909, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whom he considered to be one of the four greatest thinkers in history. During his later years White wrote on literary topics, and in 1926 he published a biography of Abraham Baldwin, the founder of the University of Georgia. White was married to Ella Frances Roberts from 1872 until her death in 1913; they had no children. He died in Athens on November 30, 1927.