Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont

Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont

Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont's life

Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont was born in Brussels, into a noble family and free from need. He could have made do with the family fortune to enjoy life, but our young friend decided to study philosophy at the University of Louvain. At 17, he already received his philosophy diploma. It’s that Van Helmont is a brilliant spirit.

He then turned to other scientific subjects such as algebra, geometry and finally medicine. He graduated as a medical doctor at the age of 20.

But he was not convinced by the medicine of the time. Also, he continues to seek his way.

Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont's discoveries

He decides to turn to alchemy, the ancestor of chemistry. And he attacks the four elements of Aristotle: fire, air, water, and earth. And he says that neither earth nor fire are elements.

To prove his hypotheses, he performs experiments.

For Van Helmont, “fire is lit smoke”. To demonstrate his idea, he uses the experience of the candle. It consists of putting out a candle with a long wick. As you know, smoke comes out of the extinguished wick. Then he approaches another lit candle, close enough so that the extinguished wick will light again.

Through his various experiments, he observes that materials like coal or the fermentation of grape juice release a kind of vapor. Back then, people called it “spirit.” Van Helmont called it “gas”. And in his particular case, it is the carbon dioxide that he identified, the famous CO2. The greenhouse gas.

To prove that the earth is not an element, he makes another experiment. He decides to plant a willow in a container, with a well-defined amount of soil and that he weighs. For 5 years, he watered the plant with filtered rainwater. And then he weighs the tree and the earth.

He observes that the tree has gained 167 lb, while the earth has lost only 2 oz. From his experience, he says that it is not the earth that turns into a tree, but the water that turns into wood and roots.

We know today that it is not water that turns into bark or roots, but that the growth of the tree also depends on another mechanism called photosynthesis. It’s the energy of light that turns water, carbon dioxide and minerals into organic compounds.

Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont

January 12, 1579

December 30, 1644