van Helmont, Jan
Flemish physician and chemist
Jan van Helmont was an early pioneer in the study of gases, and performed numerous chemical experiments, including an analysis of smoke, distinguishing it from ordinary air by the particles it contained. However, van Helmont is best known for a single experiment demonstrating that the weight a plant gains during growth is not due to absorption of an equal amount of soil, but instead is due (at least in part) to water.
Van Helmont undertook his famous experiment in plant growth, in part, to learn more about water. In this experiment, he carefully weighed a young willow shoot, and then planted it in a large container whose soil he had also carefully dried and weighed. He watered the willow as needed for five years, and then reweighed both the willow and the soil. The willow had grown from 2.2 kilograms (5 pounds) to 77 kilograms (169 pounds), while the dry weight of the soil had lost only 57 grams (2 ounces). In this way, van Helmont demonstrated that plants do not simply take up soil as they grow, and concluded that water was the sole source of this increased weight. However, van Helmont did not suspect that gases in the air might contribute to plant growth, a fact demonstrated by Nicolas de Saussure more than one hundred years later.
Isley, D. "Helmont." In One Hundred and One Botanists. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.
Pagel, W. "J. B. Van Helmont." In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 6. New York: Scribner's, 1972.