He Had Gas
December 30, 1644: Jan Baptist van Helmont Passes
Baptist (sometimes Baptiste, 12 January 1580 – 30 December 1644) was an early modern Flemish chemist, physiologist and physician. He is considered the founder of pneumatic chemistry, and everyone knows what that is right? Jan Baptist introduced the word “gas” (from the Greek word chaos) into our vocabulary. He recognized the existence of discrete gases and identified carbon dioxide.
[Pneumatic chemistry is a term identified with an understanding of the physical properties of gases and how they relate to chemical reactions and, ultimately, the composition of matter including the Earth’s atmosphere and eventually atomic theory]
Van Helmont was the first to recognize that many reactions produce substances that are, in his words, “far more subtle or fine…than a vapor, mist, or distilled oiliness, although…many times thicker than air.” To describe these substances, he invented the word gas and identified a number of gases, including carbon dioxide.
His best known experiment was the “willow tree” experiment. He placed a 5 pound willow in a pot containing 200 pounds of dried soil. Over a five year period he added nothing to it but rainwater or distilled water. After five years he found that the tree weighed 169 pounds while the soil lost only 2 ounces. He concluded that, ”164 pounds of wood, barks and roots arose out of water only,” he knew nothing of photosynthesis at the time [photosynthesis – carbon from the air and minerals from the soil generate new plant tissue].
He believed that the mass of materials had to be accounted for in the chemical process. This led him to reject the commonly held notion that plants were fed exclusively by the soil.
Through many experiments in physiology, van Helmont demonstrated that acid was the digestive element in the stomach and was neutralized by alkali in the intestine and that blood combined with a “ferment from the air,” with venous blood removing a residue that escaped through the lungs. His theory of “ferments” as the agents bringing about physiological processes is a crude precursor of the idea of enzymes.
Perhaps the best verdict on van Helmont’s work is that given by the British chemist James R. Partington: “He represents the transition from alchemy to chemistry…”