If you've attended industry conventions, chances are you've met Dr. John Thomson. You likely saw him faithfully manning his booth, always available to discuss his favorite subjects: plant health, vitamins and SUPERthrive, his extremely successful plant-growth formula. Chances are also good that this friendly, 91-year-old green-industry pioneer inquired of your use of his product, then told you several astonishing horticultural facts you never knew, and finished off the conversation with a pointer on anti-aging, if you warranted it. That's our industry's incomparable John A. Thomson, Ph.D, biochemist and nutritionist.
John Ansel Armstrong Thomson was born in Detroit in 1911. From a very young age, he showed an interest in ways to improve the health of living things, particularly through vitamins. His first inkling that vitamins and mineral supplements could improve health came at the age of 16 while caring for his Welsh terrier, Jim. Thomson spent hours studying doggie vitamin and mineral supplements sold at the pet store, making sure Jim received regular doses.
"I've always felt that if you can't improve things, what's the point of being around?" says Thomson. "And, I've always been interested in the health of life forms. Jim went on to be quite a winning show dog. That's when I saw the difference vitamins make."
His budding interest in biochemistry would be encouraged by the uncanny providence of getting exceptional science teachers. In high school, Thomson took a summer-school chemistry class taught by a chemist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I'm sure if I hadn't taken that class from him I wouldn't have gone on to pursue what I did," he says.
After graduating from his local community college in 1935, Thomson began experimenting with pure forms of crystalline vitamins, which were very rare.
"I was interested in pioneering in this field to make pure vitamins usable and obtainable for every man," he says. "I was an 'arriving' young squirt with high ideals who didn't know any better, so I just dove in. This was of great interest to me and gave me the hope of possibly making a living from it."
Thomson delved deeper and began experimenting with plants. He was drawn to cutting-edge agricultural research being done at the California Institute of Technology at the time, and he constantly read scientific journals, studying others' work. This research would culminate in his own finest moment in 1939. At age 28, Thomson invented what would later be known as a classic plant supplement, SUPERthrive, a concentrated formula with 50 vitamins-hormones. The formula contains compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that provide an extra boost to plants, according to Thomson. Before long, Thomson had large growers buying his product. Not only that, they would give him plants for further experimentation and improvements.
"I soon had the world's largest experimentation lab for plants," says Thomson. "It was wonderful, and I'm thankful for these progressive-minded growers."
In 1940, just one year after inventing SUPERthrive, Thomson received a great tribute: a Gold Medal at the World's Fair in San Francisco for 'Scientific Advancement in the Past Decade.' He was honored again during World War II when several U.S. government agencies used the product for such various contexts as transplantation of mature trees for camouflage and for planting and sustaining low-dust turf landing fields.
Since then, Thomson's much-heralded product has been sold on every continent. Contractors worldwide report particular value in its use for quickly reviving trees and other plants during duress from transplanting, climate extremes or other influences.
"SUPERthrive has been called the ultimate application of plant physiology, and I look back with amazement at what I was able to create," says Thomson. "I think I simply didn't know that it couldn't be done as I was optimistic at all times."
In 1957, Thomson returned to college and by 1979 had received a Ph.D in biochemistry and nutrition, and a Doctor of Arts in biochemistry and horticulture. He estimates he's invented 100 horticultural hormone products (some may remember CUTstart and SEEDyield) as well as 100 human-nutrition products. However, SUPERthrive (which he says contains both CUTstart and SEEDyield) is the only one he still offers.
"All my other products faded by the wayside because I never wanted to hire a salesman, which would have bumped up prices," says Thomson. "SUPERthrive is the only product I made that did well without a sales force. I've always relied on informative labeling and the point-of-purchase cards to do my selling. People say my labeling and information is unique; I only know that it tells what I need it to tell."
Also a firm believer in trade organizations and shows, the green-industry veteran exhibited at the ALCA's first convention held in 1964. Today, Thomson usually stays close to home, showing at the Western Nursery & Garden Expo and other western trade shows. He always remains at his booth to pass out product samples and handshakes.
Thomson is still the active CEO of his business, The Vitamin Institute. He estimates that he works about 50 hours a week at his offices and headquarters in North Hollywood, California. "I like having something to think about all the time," he says.
In his spare time, Thomson enjoys being active in environmental, health and social reform.
Over the years, he has fought countless causes and belonged to many organizations, from the Boy Scouts of America and the Kiwanas, to the Sierra Club and Amnesty International. Today, he chairs a commission on social justice through his Methodist church, and continues active memberships in a host of organizations.
Thomson, who takes vitamins faithfully, also enjoys tennis and spending time with his three children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
"If I have any secrets for my long life, I'd say it's definitely been vitamins and my desire to stay involved," says Thomson. "My goals have been to try and make a difference and to help in any way I could. I feel good about that."