John Andreas Widtsoe was born on January 31, 1872, on the remote, windswept Norwegian island of Frøya. John was six when his father died, and John’s mother, Anna, took him and his younger brother to live in Trondheim.
There Anna was introduced to the restored gospel by a shoemaker who left Latter-day Saint pamphlets in the shoes he repaired for the young widow. It was a bold move by the craftsman, who was considered to be of a lower class than the widow of an educator. But Anna’s curiosity was piqued, and she responded to the gospel message.
In 1883 the Widtsoe family immigrated to Logan, Utah, where young John later enrolled in Brigham Young College. A hard worker and bright student, he graduated in 1891, studied chemistry at Harvard University, and graduated with highest honors in 1894. While at Harvard, he met Leah Eudora Dunford. They married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1898 and became the parents of seven children, only three of whom lived to adulthood.
John began his professional career as professor of chemistry and as chemist at the experiment station at Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan. He later studied physiological chemistry (biochemistry) in Göttingen, Germany, received a Ph.D., and became an international authority on agricultural chemistry in harsh climates. He was also a recognized authority on irrigation and dry farming.
John A. Widtsoe served as president of the Utah Agricultural College from 1907 to 1916, when he was named president of the University of Utah. He served in that capacity until 1921, when he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Widtsoe was associate editor of the Improvement Era (a predecessor to the Ensign magazine) from 1935 to 1952. He also wrote a number of books that were widely used in the Church, including Priesthood and Church Government. He was president of the European Mission from 1926 to 1932, during which time he dedicated Czechoslovakia for the preaching of the gospel.
Elder Widtsoe died in Salt Lake City, Utah, at age 80, on November 29, 1952.