Monday, December 21, 2015

1645: Van Helmont learns about air

The path for science had been established.  It began, however, under the guise of alchemy, a type of chemistry that particularly, even more so than science itself, was despised by the Church.  Yet it was this arrangement that made it possible for two great minds to investigate and learn the true contents of air and the purpose of why we breathe.

The first such great mind was that of Paracelsus, a man who was discussed in an earlier post.  He was a Swiss Alchemist who, in 1541, suggested that a substance in air was essential for sustaining life.  (6)  Of course such ideas were not well accepted by the medical profession, which generally thought of Paracelsus as a madman. (2, page 40)

The second was Jean Baptiste van Helmont , another man who was discussed in an earlier post.  He greatly appreciated the works of Paracelsus, and performed tests on the substance air, and he "recognized its true origin and defined its principle characteristics."  (1, page 19)

Van Helmont is also the first to use the term 'gas.' as something "distinct from air and water vapor." (2, page 40) (1, page 19)(16)

He believed that when God created Heaven he thus created water and air. Van Helmont performed a variety of tests to prove that water was separate from air, and that water could not be turned into air. He determined that air could be compressed and water could not, and he also deduced that "air could be reduced to one-half of its original volume under pressure." (3, page 96)

He likewise observed that water could be metamorphosed into ice, vapor and gas (his new term).  (4, page 64)

He knew he had a substance that was not water and not vapor, and he knew he had to come up with a term to describe it.  So he used the term "chaos," shortened it a bit, and came up with his new term 'gas."  He explained that "I have called this mist Gas, owing to its resemblance to the Chaos of the Ancients." (5, page 179)

Elizabeth Potter, in her 2001 book, said:
Experimentally, we see that when the flame of a candle burning on top of a water surface and enclosed in a cylinder has consumed the air, the water rises in the cylinder and extinguishes the candle.  Helmont argued that the otherwise empty space within the air contains magnale or spirit of the air.  This Magnale is also a third thing between spirit and matter, and it, not air, keeps us alive when we breathe. (3, page 96-7)
Ulf Lagerkvist, in his 2005 book, said van Helmont also, like Bacon before him, described a substance called gas sylvestre.  He came to this conclusion "as the result of burning charcoal and the fermentation of must." (2, page 40)

What he did was take 62 pounds of ash, burned it, and discovered that what was left was 1 pound of ash, according to (16)
What has happened to the rest? Van Helmont is convinced, ahead of his time, of the indestructibility of matter. Indeed he is able to demonstrate that metal dissolved in acid can be recovered without loss of weight. (16)
So he now reasons that the missing 61 lbs have escaped in the form of an airy substance to which he gives the name gas sylvestre (wood gas). (16)
Another interesting tidbit about van Helmont was that he is believed by many historians to be the first physician to oppose the Hippocratic humoral theory of disease, that diseases were caused by an imbalance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

He was  the first to prove that there was more to life than the four basic elements (Earth, Air, Water, fire) championed by ancient Greek philosophers, that these were not the only essential elements of life. Instead, he created some of his own theories based on his experiments.  For example, he believed the two primary elements were water and air.

Of course, like Paracelsus before him, Van Helmont was considered to be a madman by the scientific community and the medical profession.  His wisdom was simply not appreciated because it opposed accepted the accepted doctrines of Galen and other ancient philosophers.  (2, page 40)

Out of fear of persecution, van Helmont's works weren't published until after his death in 1648 by his son. While his works were ignored by most of his immediate successors, his ideas would eventually become accepted doctrine, and he would go down in history as the father of pneumatic chemistry.

  1. Tissier, Paul Louis Alexandre, “Pneumotherapy including aerotherapy and inhalation methods and therapy,” volume x, 1903, Philadelphia, P. Blakiston’s Sons & Co., page 19
  2. Lagerkvist, Ulf, "The Enigma of Ferment," 2005, Singapore, World Scientific Publishing
  3. Potter, Elizabeth, "Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases," 2001, Indiana University Press
  4. Newman, William R, et al, "Alchemy Tried in the Fire," 2002, University of Chicago
  5. Lehrs, Ernst, "Man or Matter," 1958, Great Britain, Whistable Litho Ltd.
  6. Jindel, S.K., "Oxygen Therapy," 2008, pages 5-8
  7. Hill, Leonard, Benjamin Moore, Arthur Phillip Beddard, John James Rickard, etc., editors, "Recent Advances in Physiology and bio-chemistry," 1908, London, Edward Arnold
  8. Hamilton, William, "A History of Medicine, Surgery and Anatomy," 1831, Vol. I, London, New Burlington
  9. Osler, William Henry, "The evolution of Modern Medicine: A series of lectures delivered at Yale University on the Sillman Foundation in April, 1913," 1921, New Haven, Yale University Press
  10. Osler, ibid, pages 170, reference referring to William Harvey: Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, Francofurti, 1628, G. Moreton's facsimile reprint and translation, Canterbury, 1894, p. 48. 20 Ibid., p. 49.
  11. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "Introduction to the history of medicine," 1921, London, 
  12. Baker, Christopher, editor, "The Great Cultural Eras of the Western World: Absolutism and the Scientific Revolution 1600-1720: A biographical dictionary," 2002, CT, Greenwood Publishing; Herman Boerhavve published Biblia Naturae (Bible of Nature) in 1737, which was a two volume compilation of the works of Jan Swammerdam. Can you read Latin?
  13. Garrison, op cit, 266; (Samuel) Pepy's Diary, Mynors Bright's ed., London, 1900, v, 191
  14. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey
  15. Brock, Arthur John, "Galen on the natural faculties," 1916, London, New York, William Heinemann, G.P. Putnam's Sons
  16. "History of Chemistry,",, accessed 7/6/14
  17. Affray, Charles, Denis Noble, "Origins of Systems Biology in William Harvey's masterpiece on the Movement of the Heart and the Blood in Animals," April 17, 2009, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 10(2), pages 1658-1669, found online at,, accessed 7/8/14

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