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Food faddist and pioneer of chemurgy

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Callie JonesHenry Ford was born 150 years ago on 30 July 1863 into a farming family in Michigan.

Ford is best known for developing the assembly line system of mass production, and introducing cars like the Model T Ford, but he also pioneered more than just building vehicles.

Ford had no interest in taking over the family farm. Instead, he forged strong links between agriculture and industry by investing in chemurgy — the application of chemistry and allied sciences in developing new uses for agricultural produce.

In 1932–33 alone, his company spent around $1.25m on soybean research, leading to the use of soybean products in artificial fibres, car horns, paint, fuel, shock absorber fluid, body panels and even a prototype vehicle made using soy-based plastics and fuelled by grain alcohol.

Ford’s interest in the soybean was sparked by Edsel Ruddiman, a pharmacist and old schoolfriend, who worked in Ford’s laboratory. Ruddiman developed the first commercial soy milk and other dairy products, prompting Ford to declare cows “the crudest machines in the world”.

Ford frowned on drinking and gambling and banned smoking in his factories. He took a strong interest in the relationship between diet, health and longevity. His own idiosyncrasies included drinking warm water and snacking on wheat kernels soaked until almost sprouted.

He considered wheat to be “divine food” — until shown evidence that hogs wasted away on a diet of wheat alone. Ford claimed that if people ate properly, there would be much better health and fewer hospitals and jails.

Throughout his life Ford was described as “full of energy, lean as a split rail fence, and good physical condition . . . the picture of health”. But he suffered a series of strokes in the late 1930s and after the death from cancer of his only child (named Edsel after Ford’s pharmacist friend) in 1943, his health deteriorated. He died, aged 83, on 7 April 1947.

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