Jan Baptist von Helmont was one of the early brilliant minds in the modern period of Flemish chemistry, physiology, and medicine. Sometimes, 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.
Early Years and Background
Born on the 12th day of January in 1580, Brussels, Germany, Jan Baptist von Helmont was a member of one of the noble families back then. He was the youngest of the five children of Christiaen van Helmont, who was a public prosecutor, and Maria van Stassaert. He obtained his education in Louvain. There, he explored the many different fields of science. However, he found no satisfaction in them and in the end he focused his works on medicine. He had his medical degree in 1599.
He had some interruptions in his study where he spent his time travelling through England, France, Italy, and Switzerland. In 1605, he practiced medicine in Antwerp and this was the time of the great plague. Four years later, he was able to have his doctoral degree for his courses in medicine. When he finished his education completely, he then married Margaret van Ranst. She was also from a noble family, and the couple lived in Vilvoorde, an area near Brussels. They had six or seven children, and because of the inheritance his wife had, he was able to comfortably retire early and be occupied with various chemical experiments until his time of death.
He is sometimes referred to as the founder of pneumatic chemistry. This is because he was the very first to understand and acknowledge that there are certain gases which are different from atmospheric air. He claimed the word “gas” to be his own invention, and he perceived how what he called as “gas sylvestre” which is something that comes from burning charcoal is also the same gas present in fermented food. This same air was what he claimed to be the cause of caves having irrespirable air.
What makes this man of science interesting is that he was also one of the disciples of Paracelsus who happened to be an alchemist and a mystic—two fields which are contradictory to what “science” really is. Most probably because of this, Jan Baptist von Helmont believed how air and water are the two most primitive elements. He had explicitly denied fire to be an element, and that earth also isn’t an element since it can be reduced to water.
From these thoughts and beliefs, he was able to conceive the 5-year plant experiment. He did this by planting a willow tree in 200 pounds of dry soil and he gave the tree nothing but water for five years—the soil remaining basically the same throughout the time of the experiment. Over the course of 5 years, the willow tree reached its maturity taking in what it was given, and in the end it totaled 169 ib. Because of this finding, Jan Baptist von Helmont argued that the growth, change in weight, accumulation of bark, and roots had been formed based on the supply of water alone.
Jan Baptist von Helmont believed in the old idea that bodily processes have fermentative characteristics, but compared to any experimenters who came before him, he was able to apply it in more elaborate and conclusive means. He perceived how digestion, nutrition, as well as internal movement related to these procedures are caused by ferments which help convert the “dead food” into what the body can use to support its living flesh.
Also concerning digestion, he addressed how food consumed is digested by the heat from the body. However, if this was the case, according to him, how are the cold-blooded animals able to digest their food with something as heat? This was where the fermentative properties came in. He believed that there are chemical agents inside the body which bring about the fermentation and convert food in the stomach into usable energy. This idea of Jan Baptist von Helmont is very much similar to today’s modern concept of what enzymes help achieve in the body.
Being a disciple of Paracelsus, his scientific thoughts also had their own indications of still having the mystic and alchemical ideas behind them. He introduced complicated supernatural systems in the body. These included the archei which was said to preside over the direct affairs of one’s body and the archeus which controls the different subsidiary archei. Diseases are caused by certain affection observed in the different archeus which he called as exorbitatio, and that remedies act by bringing back the balance that the body needs.
Combining these ideas and his knowledge in medicine, he was able to make unique yet effective choices. One example was how acidity caused by digestive juices can be remedied by alkalis. Because of this thought, he was one of the forerunners of the iatrochemical school. He had contributed to the field of medicine by being able to apply the different chemical methods he knew for the preparation of certain drugs.
Above what he called the archeus, Jan Baptist von Helmont believed in the presence of a person’s sensitive soul. According to him this is the shell or husk of one’s immortal mind and before “the Fall,” a person’s archeus obeyed the immortal mind.
Apart from the archeus, he also believed in certain governing agencies which resembled the archeus, one of which is “blas” or motion, particularly that there is blashumanun or blas of the humans, and blasmeteoron or blas of meteors. Meteors do, after all, have their own gas and even have motion, which is why his belief about “blas” appeared to be something that is not based on just whim alone.
Jan Baptist von Helmont was a fervent observer of nature, and with his education as well as other beliefs, he was able to come up with medical contributions that transcended his time and wrote his name in history.