Monday, April 18, 2022

Jan Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644)

Jan Baptista van Helmont was a Flemish physician, philosopher, mystic, and chemist who recognized the existence of discrete gases and identified carbon dioxide. He is remembered today largely for his ideas on spontaneous generation and his introduction of the word “gas” (from the Greek word chaos) into the vocabulary of scientists.

He partially discovered the process of photosynthesis in 1660’s. He grew a willow tree in a weighed amount of soil. He kept the so He thought that the extra plant material had come from the water alone.

After five years, he discovered that the willow tree weighed about 74 kg more than it did at the start. To Van Helmont’s surprise, the tree was much heavier, but the soil still weighed about as much as it had five years earlier. Van Helmont concluded that the tree’s matter did not come from soil; it must have gained its matter from the water he had added to it over the years.

Van Helmont was born Jan. 12, 1579 into a wealthy family of the landed gentry. His father, Christiaen van Helmont, was a public prosecutor. His inheritance (his father died in 1580) and the income from his wife’s fiefs made him financially independent throughout his life.

At the age of 17, he had already achieved his degree in philosophy at Leuven University. Even so, Van Helmont's particular interest was science. He found no satisfaction in them and in the end, he focused his works on medicine. He obtained his medical degree in 1609 after ten years of travels and studies.

Van Helmont abandoned his medical career and for 10 years traveled through Europe, especially England, France, Italy, and Switzerland. In 1605 he returned first to Amsterdam and practiced medicine during a plague epidemic.

He married a wealthy noblewoman, Margaret van Ranst, in 1609 and settled on an estate in Vilvorde near Brussels to devote himself to chemical philosophy.

He is considered as the “founder of pneumatic chemistry” and today he is remembered by modern generations in the field of medicine for his thoughts on spontaneous generation, how he introduced the word “gas” to the scientific vocabulary, and his famous 5-year tree experiment.
Jan Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644)

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