Familiar Letters of Chemistry
by Justus Liebig
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The second principal ingredient of the blood is contained in the serum, and gives to this liquid all the properties of the white of eggs, with which it is indeed identical. When heated, it coagulates into a white elastic mass, and the coagulating substance is called albumen.

Fibrine and albumen, the chief ingredients of blood, contain, in all, seven chemical elements, among which nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur are found. They contain also the earth of bones. The serum retains in solution sea salt and other salts of potash and soda, in which the acids are carbonic, phosphoric, and sulphuric acids. The globules of the blood contain fibrine and albumen, along with a red colouring matter, in which iron is a constant element. Besides these, the blood contains certain fatty bodies in small quantity, which differ from ordinary fats in several of their properties.

Chemical analysis has led to the remarkable result, that fibrine and albumen contain the same organic elements united in the same proportion,—i.e., that they are isomeric, their chemical composition—the proportion of their ultimate elements—being identical. But the difference of their external properties shows that the particles of which they are composed are arranged in a different order. (See Letter V).

This conclusion has lately been beautifully confirmed by a distinguished physiologist (Denis), who has succeeded in converting fibrine into albumen, that is, in giving it the solubility, and coagulability by heat, which characterise the white of egg.

Fibrine and albumen, besides having the same composition, agree also in this, that both dissolve in concentrated muriatic acid, yielding a solution of an intense purple colour. This solution, whether made with fibrine or albumen, has the very same re-actions with all substances yet tried.

Both albumen and fibrine, in the process of nutrition, are capable of being converted into muscular fibre, and muscular fibre is capable of being reconverted into blood. These facts have long been established by physiologists, and chemistry has merely proved that these metamorphoses can be accomplished under the influence of a certain force, without the aid of a third substance, or of its elements, and without the addition of any foreign element, or the separation of any element previously present in these substances.

If we now compare the composition of all organised parts with that of fibrine and albumen, the following relations present themselves:—

All parts of the animal body which have a decided shape, which form parts of organs, contain nitrogen. No part of an organ which possesses motion and life is destitute of nitrogen; all of them contain likewise carbon and the elements of water; the latter, however, in no case in the proportion to form water.

The chief ingredients of the blood contain nearly 17 per cent. of nitrogen, and from numerous analyses it appears that no part of an organ contains less than 17 per cent. of nitrogen.

The most convincing experiments and observations have proved that the animal body is absolutely incapable of producing an elementary body, such as carbon or nitrogen, out of substances which do not contain it; and it obviously follows, that all kinds of food fit for the production either of blood, or of cellular tissue, membranes, skin, hair, muscular fibre, &c., must contain a certain amount of nitrogen, because that element is essential to the composition of the above-named organs; because the organs cannot create it from the other elements presented to them; and, finally, because no nitrogen is absorbed from the atmosphere in the vital process.

The substance of the brain and nerves contains a large quantity of albumen, and, in addition to this, two peculiar fatty acids, distinguished from other fats by containing phosphorus (phosphoric acid?). One of these contains nitrogen (Fremy).

Finally, water and common fat are those ingredients of the body which are destitute of nitrogen. Both are amorphous or unorganised, and only so far take part in the vital process as that their presence is required for the due performance of the vital functions. The inorganic constituents of the body are, iron, lime, magnesia, common salt, and the alkalies.

The nutritive process is seen in its simplest form in carnivorous animals. This class of animals lives on the blood and flesh of the graminivora; but this blood and flesh are, in all their properties, identical with their own. Neither chemical nor physiological differences can be discovered.

The nutriment of carnivorous animals is derived originally from blood; in their stomach it becomes dissolved, and capable of reaching all other parts of the body; in its passage it is again converted into blood, and from this blood are reproduced all those parts of their organisation which have undergone change or metamorphosis.

With the exception of hoofs, hair, feathers, and the earth of bones, every part of the food of carnivorous animals is capable of assimilation.

In a chemical sense, therefore, it may be said that a carnivorous animal, in supporting the vital process, consumes itself. That which serves for its nutrition is identical with those parts of its organisation which are to be renewed.

The process of nutrition in graminivorous animals appears at first sight altogether different. Their digestive organs are less simple, and their food consists of vegetables, the great mass of which contains but little nitrogen.

From what substances, it may be asked, is the blood formed, by means of which of their organs are developed? This question may be answered with certainty.

Chemical researches have shown, that all such parts of vegetables as can afford nutriment to animals contain certain constituents which are rich in nitrogen; and the most ordinary experience proves that animals require for their support and nutrition less of these parts of plants in proportion as they abound in the nitrogenised constituents. Animals cannot be fed on matters destitute of these nitrogenised constituents.

These important products of vegetation are especially abundant in the seeds of the different kinds of grain, and of peas, beans, and lentils; in the roots and the juices of what are commonly called vegetables. They exist, however, in all plants, without exception, and in every part of plants in larger or smaller quantity.

These nitrogenised forms of nutriment in the vegetable kingdom may be reduced to three substances, which are easily distinguished by their external characters. Two of them are soluble in water, the third is insoluble.

When the newly-expressed juices of vegetables are allowed to stand, a separation takes place in a few minutes. A gelatinous precipitate, commonly of a green tinge, is deposited, and this, when acted on by liquids which remove the colouring matter, leaves a grayish white substance, well known to druggists as the deposite from vegetable juices. This is one of the nitrogenised compounds which serves for the nutrition of animals, and has been named vegetable fibrine. The juice of grapes is especially rich in this constituent, but it is most abundant in the seeds of wheat, and of the cerealia generally. It may be obtained from wheat flour by a mechanical operation, and in a state of tolerable purity; it is then called gluten, but the glutinous property belongs, not to vegetable fibrine, but to a foreign substance, present in small quantity, which is not found in the other cerealia.

The method by which it is obtained sufficiently proves that it is insoluble in water; although we cannot doubt that it was originally dissolved in the vegetable juice, from which it afterwards separated, exactly as fibrine does from blood.

The second nitrogenised compound remains dissolved in the juice after the separation of the fibrine. It does not separate from the juice at the ordinary temperature, but is instantly coagulated when the liquid containing it is heated to the boiling point.

When the clarified juice of nutritious vegetables, such as cauliflower, asparagus, mangelwurzel, or turnips, is made to boil, a coagulum is formed, which it is absolutely impossible to distinguish from the substance which separates as a coagulum, when the serum of blood, or the white of an egg, diluted with water, are heated to the boiling point. This is vegetable albumen. It is found in the greatest abundance in certain seeds, in nuts, almonds, and others, in which the starch of the gramineae is replaced by oil.

The third nitrogenised constituent of the vegetable food of animals is vegetable caseine. It is chiefly found in the seeds of peas, beans, lentils, and similar leguminous seeds. Like vegetable albumen, it is soluble in water, but differs from it in this, that its solution is not coagulated by heat. When the solution is heated or evaporated, a skin forms on its surface, and the addition of an acid causes a coagulum, just as in animal milk.

These three nitrogenised compounds, vegetable fibrine, albumen, and caseine, are the true nitrogenised constituents of the food of graminivorous animals; all other nitrogenised compounds occurring in plants, are either rejected by animals, as in the case of the characteristic principles of poisonous and medicinal plants, or else they occur in the food in such very small proportion, that they cannot possibly contribute to the increase of mass in the animal body.

The chemical analysis of these three substances has led to the very interesting result that they contain the same organic elements, united in the same proportion by weight; and, what is still more remarkable, that they are identical in composition with the chief constituents of blood, animal fibrine, and albumen. They all three dissolve in concentrated muriatic acid with the same deep purple colour, and even in their physical characters, animal fibrine and albumen are in no respect different from vegetable fibrine and albumen. It is especially to be noticed, that by the phrase, identity of composition, we do not here intend mere similarity, but that even in regard to the presence and relative amount of sulphur, phosphorus, and phosphate of lime, no difference can be observed.

How beautifully and admirably simple, with the aid of these discoveries, appears the process of nutrition in animals, the formation of their organs, in which vitality chiefly resides! Those vegetable principles, which in animals are used to form blood, contain the chief constituents of blood, fibrine and albumen, ready formed, as far as regards their composition. All plants, besides, contain a certain quantity of iron, which reappears in the colouring matter of the blood. Vegetable fibrine and animal fibrine, vegetable albumen and animal albumen, hardly differ, even in form; if these principles be wanting in the food, the nutrition of the animal is arrested; and when they are present, the graminivorous animal obtains in its food the very same principles on the presence of which the nutrition of the carnivora entirely depends.

Vegetables produce in their organism the blood of all animals, for the carnivora, in consuming the blood and flesh of the graminivora, consume, strictly speaking, only the vegetable principles which have served for the nutrition of the latter. Vegetable fibrine and albumen take the form in the stomach of the graminivorous animal as animal fibrine and albumen do in that of the carnivorous animal.

From what has been said, it follows that the development of the animal organism and its growth are dependent on the reception of certain principles identical with the chief constituents of blood.

In this sense we may say that the animal organism gives to the blood only its form; that it is incapable of creating blood out of other substances which do not already contain the chief constituents of that fluid. We cannot, indeed, maintain that the animal organism has no power to form other compounds, for we know that it is capable of producing an extensive series of compounds, differing in composition from the chief constituents of blood; but these last, which form the starting-point of the series, it cannot produce.

The animal organism is a higher kind of vegetable, the development of which begins with those substances with the production of which the life of an ordinary vegetable ends. As soon as the latter has borne seed, it dies, or a period of its life comes to a termination.

In that endless series of compounds, which begins with carbonic acid, ammonia, and water, the sources of the nutrition of vegetables, and includes the most complex constituents of the animal brain, there is no blank, no interruption. The first substance capable of affording nutriment to animals is the last product of the creative energy of vegetables.

The substance of cellular tissue and of membranes, of the brain and nerves, these the vegetable cannot produce.

The seemingly miraculous in the productive agency of vegetables disappears in a great degree, when we reflect that the production of the constituents of blood cannot appear more surprising than the occurrence of the fat of beef and mutton in cocoa beans, of human fat in olive-oil, of the principal ingredient of butter in palm-oil, and of horse fat and train-oil in certain oily seeds.


My dear Sir,

The facts detailed in my last letter will satisfy you as to the manner in which the increase of mass in an animal, that is, its growth, is accomplished; we have still to consider a most important question, namely, the function performed in the animal system by substances destitute of nitrogen; such as sugar, starch, gum, pectine, &c.

The most extensive class of animals, the graminivora, cannot live without these substances; their food must contain a certain amount of one or more of them, and if these compounds are not supplied, death quickly ensues.

This important inquiry extends also to the constituents of the food of carnivorous animals in the earliest periods of life; for this food also contains substances, which are not necessary for their support in the adult state. The nutrition of the young of carnivora is obviously accomplished by means similar to those by which the graminivora are nourished; their development is dependent on the supply of a fluid, which the body of the mother secretes in the shape of milk.

Milk contains only one nitrogenised constituent, known under the name of caseine; besides this, its chief ingredients are butter (fat), and sugar of milk. The blood of the young animal, its muscular fibre, cellular tissue, nervous matter, and bones, must have derived their origin from the nitrogenised constituent of milk—the caseine; for butter and sugar of milk contain no nitrogen.

Now, the analysis of caseine has led to the result, which, after the details I have given, can hardly excite your surprise, that this substance also is identical in composition with the chief constituents of blood, fibrine and albumen. Nay more—a comparison of its properties with those of vegetable caseine has shown—that these two substances are identical in all their properties; insomuch, that certain plants, such as peas, beans, and lentils, are capable of producing the same substance which is formed from the blood of the mother, and employed in yielding the blood of the young animal.

The young animal, therefore, receives in the form of caseine,—which is distinguished from fibrine and albumen by its great solubility, and by not coagulating when heated,—the chief constituent of the mother's blood. To convert caseine into blood no foreign substance is required, and in the conversion of the mother's blood into caseine, no elements of the constituents of the blood have been separated. When chemically examined, caseine is found to contain a much larger proportion of the earth of bones than blood does, and that in a very soluble form, capable of reaching every part of the body. Thus, even in the earliest period of its life, the development of the organs, in which vitality resides, is, in the carnivorous animal, dependent on the supply of a substance, identical in organic composition with the chief constituents of its blood.

What, then, is the use of the butter and the sugar of milk? How does it happen that these substances are indispensable to life?

Butter and sugar of milk contain no fixed bases, no soda nor potash. Sugar of milk has a composition closely allied to that of the other kinds of sugar, of starch, and of gum; all of them contain carbon and the elements of water, the latter precisely in the proportion to form water.

There is added, therefore, by means of these compounds, to the nitrogenised constituents of food, a certain amount of carbon; or, as in the case of butter, of carbon and hydrogen; that is, an excess of elements, which cannot possibly be employed in the production of blood, because the nitrogenised substances contained in the food already contain exactly the amount of carbon which is required for the production of fibrine and albumen.

In an adult carnivorous animal, which neither gains nor loses weight, perceptibly, from day to day, its nourishment, the waste of organised tissue, and its consumption of oxygen, stand to each other in a well-defined and fixed relation.

The carbon of the carbonic acid given off, with that of the urine; the nitrogen of the urine, and the hydrogen given off as ammonia and water; these elements, taken together, must be exactly equal in weight to the carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen of the metamorphosed tissues, and since these last are exactly replaced by the food, to the carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen of the food. Were this not the case, the weight of the animal could not possibly remain unchanged.

But, in the young of the carnivora, the weight does not remain unchanged; on the contrary, it increases from day to day by an appreciable quantity.

This fact presupposes, that the assimilative process in the young animal is more energetic, more intense, than the process of transformation in the existing tissues. If both processes were equally active, the weight of the body could not increase; and were the waste by transformation greater, the weight of the body would decrease.

Now, the circulation in the young animal is not weaker, but, on the contrary, more rapid; the respirations are more frequent; and, for equal bulks, the consumption of oxygen must be greater rather than smaller in the young than in the adult animal. But, since the metamorphosis of organised parts goes on more slowly, there would ensue a deficiency of those substances, the carbon and hydrogen of which are adapted for combination with oxygen; because, in the carnivora, nature has destined the new compounds, produced by the metamorphosis of organised parts, to furnish the necessary resistance to the action of the oxygen, and to produce animal heat. What is wanting for these purposes an Infinite Wisdom has supplied to the young in its natural food.

The carbon and hydrogen of butter, and the carbon of the sugar of milk, no part of either of which can yield blood, fibrine, or albumen, are destined for the support of the respiratory process, at an age when a greater resistance is opposed to the metamorphosis of existing organisms; or, in other words, to the production of compounds, which, in the adult state, are produced in quantity amply sufficient for the purpose of respiration.

The young animal receives the constituents of its blood in the caseine of the milk. A metamorphosis of existing organs goes on, for bile and urine are secreted; the materials of the metamorphosed parts are given off in the form of urine, of carbonic acid, and of water; but the butter and sugar of milk also disappear; they cannot be detected in the faeces.

The butter and sugar of milk are given out in the form of carbonic acid and water, and their conversion into oxidised products furnishes the clearest proof that far more oxygen is absorbed than is required to convert the carbon and hydrogen of the metamorphosed tissues into carbonic acid and water.

The change and metamorphosis of organised tissues going on in the vital process in the young animal, consequently yield, in a given time, much less carbon and hydrogen in the form adapted for the respiratory process than correspond to the oxygen taken up in the lungs. The substance of its organised parts would undergo a more rapid consumption, and would necessarily yield to the action of the oxygen, were not the deficiency of carbon and hydrogen supplied from another source.

The continued increase of mass, or growth, and the free and unimpeded development of the organs in the young animal, are dependent on the presence of foreign substances, which, in the nutritive process, have no other function than to protect the newly-formed organs from the action of the oxygen. The elements of these substances unite with the oxygen; the organs themselves could not do so without being consumed; that is, growth, or increase of mass in the body,—the consumption of oxygen remaining the same,—would be utterly impossible.

The preceding considerations leave no doubt as to the purpose for which Nature has added to the food of the young of carnivorous mammalia substances devoid of nitrogen, which their organism cannot employ for nutrition, strictly so called, that is, for the production of blood; substances which may be entirely dispensed with in their nourishment in the adult state. In the young of carnivorous birds, the want of all motion is an obvious cause of diminished waste in the organised parts; hence, milk is not provided for them.

The nutritive process in the carnivora thus presents itself under two distinct forms; one of which we again meet with in the graminivora.

In graminivorous animals, we observe, that during their whole life, their existence depends on a supply of substances having a composition identical with that of sugar of milk, or closely resembling it. Everything that they consume as food contains a certain quantity of starch, gum, or sugar, mixed with other matters.

The function performed in the vital process of the graminivora by these substances is indicated in a very clear and convincing manner, when we take into consideration the very small relative amount of the carbon which these animals consume in the nitrogenised constituents of their food, which bears no proportion whatever to the oxygen absorbed through the skin and lungs.

A horse, for example, can be kept in perfectly good condition, if he obtain as food 15 lbs. of hay and 4 1/2 lbs. of oats daily. If we now calculate the whole amount of nitrogen in these matters, as ascertained by analysis (1 1/2 per cent. in the hay, 2.2 per cent. in the oats), in the form of blood, that is, as fibrine and albumen, with the due proportion of water in blood (80 per cent.), the horse receives daily no more than 4 1/2 oz. of nitrogen, corresponding to about 8 lbs. of blood. But along with this nitrogen, that is, combined with it in the form of fibrine or albumen, the animal receives only about 14 1/2 oz. of carbon.

Without going further into the calculation, it will readily be admitted, that the volume of air inspired and expired by a horse, the quantity of oxygen consumed, and, as a necessary consequence, the amount of carbonic acid given out by the animal, are much greater than in the respiratory process in man. But an adult man consumes daily abut 14 oz. of carbon, and the determination of Boussingault, according to which a horse expires 79 oz. daily, cannot be very far from the truth.

In the nitrogenised constituents of his food, therefore, the horse receives rather less than the fifth part of the carbon which his organism requires for the support of the respiratory process; and we see that the wisdom of the Creator has added to his food the four-fifths which are wanting, in various forms, as starch, sugar, &c. with which the animal must be supplied, or his organism will be destroyed by the action of the oxygen.

It is obvious, that in the system of the graminivora, whose food contains so small a portion, relatively, of the constituents of the blood, the process of metamorphosis in existing tissues, and consequently their restoration or reproduction, must go on far less rapidly than in the carnivora. Were this not the case, a vegetation a thousand times more luxuriant than the actual one would not suffice for their nourishment. Sugar, gum, and starch, would no longer be necessary to support life in these animals, because, in that case, the products of the waste, or metamorphosis of the organised tissues, would contain enough carbon to support the respiratory process.


My dear Sir,

Let me now apply the principles announced in the preceding letters to the circumstances of our own species. Man, when confined to animal food, requires for his support and nourishment extensive sources of food, even more widely extended than the lion and tiger, because, when he has the opportunity, he kills without eating.

A nation of hunters, on a limited space, is utterly incapable of increasing its numbers beyond a certain point, which is soon attained. The carbon necessary for respiration must be obtained from the animals, of which only a limited number can live on the space supposed. These animals collect from plants the constituents of their organs and of their blood, and yield them, in turn, to the savages who live by the chase alone. They, again, receive this food unaccompanied by those compounds, destitute of nitrogen, which, during the life of the animals, served to support the respiratory process. In such men, confined to an animal diet, it is the carbon of the flesh and of the blood which must take the place of starch and sugar.

But 15 lbs. of flesh contain no more carbon than 4 lbs. of starch, and while the savage with one animal and an equal weight of starch should maintain life and health for a certain number of days, he would be compelled, if confined to flesh alone, in order to procure the carbon necessary for respiration, during the same time, to consume five such animals.

It is easy to see, from these considerations, how close the connection is between agriculture and the multiplication of the human species. The cultivation of our crops has ultimately no other object than the production of a maximum of those substances which are adapted for assimilation and respiration, in the smallest possible space. Grain and other nutritious vegetables yield us, not only in starch, sugar, and gum, the carbon which protects our organs from the action of oxygen, and produces in the organism the heat which is essential to life, but also in the form of vegetable fibrine, albumen, and caseine, our blood, from which the other parts of our body are developed.

Man, when confined to animal food, respires, like the carnivora, at the expense of the matters produced by the metamorphosis of organised tissues; and, just as the lion, tiger, hyaena, in the cages of a menagerie, are compelled to accelerate the waste of the organised tissues by incessant motion, in order to furnish the matter necessary for respiration, so, the savage, for the very same object, is forced to make the most laborious exertions, and go through a vast amount of muscular exercise. He is compelled to consume force merely in order to supply matter for respiration.

Cultivation is the economy of force. Science teaches us the simplest means of obtaining the greatest effect with the smallest expenditure of power, and with given means to produce a maximum of force. The unprofitable exertion of power, the waste of force in agriculture, in other branches of industry, in science, or in social economy, is characteristic of the savage state, or of the want of knowledge.

In accordance with what I have already stated, you will perceive that the substances of which the food of man is composed may be divided into two classes; into nitrogenised and non-nitrogenised. The former are capable of conversion into blood; the latter are incapable of this transformation.

Out of those substances which are adapted to the formation of blood, are formed all the organised tissues. The other class of substances, in the normal state of health, serve to support the process of respiration. The former may be called the plastic elements of nutrition; the latter, elements of respiration.

Among the former we reckon—

Vegetable fibrine. Vegetable albumen. Vegetable caseine. Animal flesh. Animal blood.

Among the elements of respiration in our food, are—

Fat. Pectine. Starch. Bassorine. Gum. Wine. Cane sugar. Beer. Grape sugar. Spirits. Sugar of milk.

The most recent and exact researches have established as a universal fact, to which nothing yet known is opposed, that the nitrogenised constituents of vegetable food have a composition identical with that of the constituents of the blood.

No nitrogenised compound, the composition of which differs from that of fibrine, albumen, and caseine, is capable of supporting the vital process in animals.

The animal organism unquestionably possesses the power of forming, from the constituents of its blood, the substance of its membranes and cellular tissue, of the nerves and brain, and of the organic part of cartilages and bones. But the blood must be supplied to it perfect in everything but its form—that is, in its chemical composition. If this be not done, a period is rapidly put to the formation of blood, and consequently to life.

This consideration enables us easily to explain how it happens that the tissues yielding gelatine or chondrine, as, for example, the gelatine of skin or of bones, are not adapted for the support of the vital process; for their composition is different from that of fibrine or albumen. It is obvious that this means nothing more than that those parts of the animal organism which form the blood do not possess the power of effecting a transformation in the arrangement of the elements of gelatine, or of those tissues which contain it. The gelatinous tissues, the gelatine of the bones, the membranes, the cells and the skin suffer, in the animal body, under the influence of oxygen and moisture, a progressive alteration; a part of these tissues is separated, and must be restored from the blood; but this alteration and restoration are obviously confined within very narrow limits.

While, in the body of a starving or sick individual, the fat disappears and the muscular tissue takes once more the form of blood, we find that the tendons and membranes retain their natural condition, and the limbs of the dead body their connections, which depend on the gelatinous tissues.

On the other hand, we see that the gelatine of bones devoured by a dog entirely disappears, while only the bone earth is found in his excrements. The same is true of man, when fed on food rich in gelatine, as, for example, strong soup. The gelatine is not to be found either in the urine or in the faeces, and consequently must have undergone a change, and must have served some purpose in the animal economy. It is clear that the gelatine must be expelled from the body in a form different from that in which it was introduced as food.

When we consider the transformation of the albumen of the blood into a part of an organ composed of fibrine, the identity in composition of the two substances renders the change easily conceivable. Indeed we find the change of a dissolved substance into an insoluble organ of vitality, chemically speaking, natural and easily explained, on account of this very identity of composition. Hence the opinion is not unworthy of a closer investigation, that gelatine, when taken in the dissolved state, is again converted, in the body, into cellular tissue, membrane and cartilage; that it may serve for the reproduction of such parts of these tissues as have been wasted, and for their growth.

And when the powers of nutrition in the whole body are affected by a change of the health, then, even should the power of forming blood remain the same, the organic force by which the constituents of the blood are transformed into cellular tissue and membranes must necessarily be enfeebled by sickness. In the sick man, the intensity of the vital force, its power to produce metamorphoses, must be diminished as well in the stomach as in all other parts of the body. In this condition, the uniform experience of practical physicians shows that gelatinous matters in a dissolved state exercise a most decided influence on the state of the health. Given in a form adapted for assimilation, they serve to husband the vital force, just as may be done, in the case of the stomach, by due preparation of the food in general.

Brittleness in the bones of graminivorous animals is clearly owing to a weakness in those parts of the organism whose function it is to convert the constituents of the blood into cellular tissue and membrane; and if we can trust to the reports of physicians who have resided in the East, the Turkish women, in their diet of rice, and in the frequent use of enemata of strong soup, have united the conditions necessary for the formation both of cellular tissue and of fat.


My dear Sir,

In the immense, yet limited expanse of the ocean, the animal and vegetable kingdoms are mutually dependent upon, and successive to each other. The animals obtain their constituent elements from the plants, and restore them to the water in their original form, when they again serve as nourishment to a new generation of plants.

The oxygen which marine animals withdraw in their respiration from the air, dissolved in sea water, is returned to the water by the vital processes of sea plants; that air is richer in oxygen than atmospheric air, containing 32 to 33 per cent. Oxygen, also, combines with the products of the putrefaction of dead animal bodies, changes their carbon into carbonic acid, their hydrogen into water, and their nitrogen assumes again the form of ammonia.

Thus we observe in the ocean a circulation takes place without the addition or subtraction of any element, unlimited in duration, although limited in extent, inasmuch as in a confined space the nourishment of plants exists in a limited quantity.

We well know that marine plants cannot derive a supply of humus for their nourishment through their roots. Look at the great sea-tang, the Fucus giganteus: this plant, according to Cook, reaches a height of 360 feet, and a single specimen, with its immense ramifications, nourishes thousands of marine animals, yet its root is a small body, no larger than the fist. What nourishment can this draw from a naked rock, upon the surface of which there is no perceptible change? It is quite obvious that these plants require only a hold,—a fastening to prevent a change of place,—as a counterpoise to their specific gravity, which is less than that of the medium in which they float. That medium provides the necessary nourishment, and presents it to the surface of every part of the plant. Sea-water contains not only carbonic acid and ammonia, but the alkaline and earthy phosphates and carbonates required by these plants for their growth, and which we always find as constant constituents of their ashes.

All experience demonstrates that the conditions of the existence of marine plants are the same which are essential to terrestrial plants. But the latter do not live like sea-plants, in a medium which contains all their elements and surrounds with appropriate nourishment every part of their organs; on the contrary, they require two media, of which one, namely the soil, contains those essential elements which are absent from the medium surrounding them, i.e. the atmosphere.

Is it possible that we could ever be in doubt respecting the office which the soil and its component parts subserve in the existence and growth of vegetables?—that there should have been a time when the mineral elements of plants were not regarded as absolutely essential to their vitality? Has not the same circulation been observed on the surface of the earth which we have just contemplated in the ocean,—the same incessant change, disturbance and restitution of equilibrium?

Experience in agriculture shows that the production of vegetables on a given surface increases with the supply of certain matters, originally parts of the soil which had been taken up from it by plants—the excrements of man and animals. These are nothing more than matters derived from vegetable food, which in the vital processes of animals, or after their death, assume again the form under which they originally existed, as parts of the soil. Now, we know that the atmosphere contains none of these substances, and therefore can replace none; and we know that their removal from a soil destroys its fertility, which may be restored and increased by a new supply.

Is it possible, after so many decisive investigations into the origin of the elements of animals and vegetables, the use of the alkalies, of lime and the phosphates, any doubt can exist as to the principles upon which a rational agriculture depends? Can the art of agriculture be based upon anything but the restitution of a disturbed equilibrium? Can it be imagined that any country, however rich and fertile, with a flourishing commerce, which for centuries exports its produce in the shape of grain and cattle, will maintain its fertility, if the same commerce does not restore, in some form of manure, those elements which have been removed from the soil, and which cannot be replaced by the atmosphere? Must not the same fate await every such country which has actually befallen the once prolific soil of Virginia, now in many parts no longer able to grow its former staple productions—wheat and tobacco?

In the large towns of England the produce both of English and foreign agriculture is largely consumed; elements of the soil indispensable to plants do not return to the fields,—contrivances resulting from the manners and customs of English people, and peculiar to them, render it difficult, perhaps impossible, to collect the enormous quantity of the phosphates which are daily, as solid and liquid excrements, carried into the rivers. These phosphates, although present in the soil in the smallest quantity, are its most important mineral constituents. It was observed that many English fields exhausted in that manner immediately doubled their produce, as if by a miracle, when dressed with bone earth imported from the Continent. But if the export of bones from Germany is continued to the extent it has hitherto reached, our soil must be gradually exhausted, and the extent of our loss may be estimated, by considering that one pound of bones contains as much phosphoric acid as a hundred-weight of grain.

The imperfect knowledge of Nature and the properties and relations of matter possessed by the alchemists gave rise, in their time, to an opinion that metals as well as plants could be produced from a seed. The regular forms and ramifications seen in crystals, they imagined to be the leaves and branches of metal plants; and as they saw the seed of plants grow, producing root, stem and leaves, and again blossoms, fruit and seeds, apparently without receiving any supply of appropriate material, they deemed it worthy of zealous inquiry to discover the seed of gold, and the earth necessary for its development. If the metal seeds were once obtained, might they not entertain hopes of their growth?

Such ideas could only be entertained when nothing was known of the atmosphere, and its participation with the earth, in administering to the vital processes of plants and animals. Modern chemistry indeed produces the elements of water, and, combining them, forms water anew; but it does not create those elements—it derives them from water; the new-formed artificial water has been water before.

Many of our farmers are like the alchemists of old,—they are searching for the miraculous seed,—the means, which, without any further supply of nourishment to a soil scarcely rich enough to be sprinkled with indigenous plants, shall produce crops of grain a hundred-fold.

The experience of centuries, nay, of thousands of years, is insufficient to guard men against these fallacies; our only security from these and similar absurdities must be derived from a correct knowledge of scientific principles.

In the first period of natural philosophy, organic life was supposed to be derived from water only; afterwards, it was admitted that certain elements derived from the air must be superadded to the water; but we now know that other elements must be supplied by the earth, if plants are to thrive and multiply.

The amount of materials contained in the atmosphere, suited to the nourishment of plants, is limited; but it must be abundantly sufficient to cover the whole surface of the earth with a rich vegetation. Under the tropics, and in those parts of our globe where the most genial conditions of fertility exist,—a suitable soil, a moist atmosphere, and a high temperature,—vegetation is scarcely limited by space; and, where the soil is wanting, it is gradually supplied by the decaying leaves, bark and branches of plants. It is obvious there is no deficiency of atmospheric nourishment for plants in those regions, nor are these wanting in our own cultivated fields: all that plants require for their development is conveyed to them by the incessant motions of the atmosphere. The air between the tropics contains no more than that of the arctic zones; and yet how different is the amount of produce of an equal surface of land in the two situations!

This is easily explicable. All the plants of tropical climates, the oil and wax palms, the sugar cane, &c., contain only a small quantity of the elements of the blood necessary to the nutrition of animals, as compared with our cultivated plants. The tubers of the potato in Chili, its native country, where the plant resembles a shrub, if collected from an acre of land, would scarcely suffice to maintain an Irish family for a single day (Darwin). The result of cultivation in those plants which serve as food, is to produce in them those constituents of the blood. In the absence of the elements essential to these in the soil, starch, sugar and woody fibre, are perhaps formed; but no vegetable fibrine, albumen, or caseine. If we intend to produce on a given surface of soil more of these latter matters than the plants can obtain from the atmosphere or receive from the soil of the same surface in its uncultivated and normal state, we must create an artificial atmosphere, and add the needed elements to the soil.

The nourishment which must be supplied in a given time to different plants, in order to admit a free and unimpeded growth, is very unequal.

On pure sand, on calcareous soil, on naked rocks, only a few genera of plants prosper, and these are, for the most part, perennial plants. They require, for their slow growth, only such minute quantities of mineral substances as the soil can furnish, which may be totally barren for other species. Annual, and especially summer plants, grow and attain their perfection in a comparatively short time; they therefore do not prosper on a soil which is poor in those mineral substances necessary to their development. To attain a maximum in height in the short period of their existence, the nourishment contained in the atmosphere is not sufficient. If the end of cultivation is to be obtained, we must create in the soil an artificial atmosphere of carbonic acid and ammonia; and this surplus of nourishment, which the leaves cannot appropriate from the air, must be taken up by the corresponding organs, i.e. the roots, from the soil. But the ammonia, together with the carbonic acid, are alone insufficient to become part of a plant destined to the nourishment of animals. In the absence of the alkalies, the phosphates and other earthy salts, no vegetable fibrine, no vegetable caseine, can be formed. The phosphoric acid of the phosphate of lime, indispensable to the cerealia and other vegetables in the formation of their seeds, is separated as an excrement, in great quantities, by the rind and barks of ligneous plants.

How different are the evergreen plants, the cacti, the mosses, the ferns, and the pines, from our annual grasses, the cerealia and leguminous vegetables! The former, at every time of the day during winter and summer, obtain carbon through their leaves by absorbing carbonic acid which is not furnished by the barren soil on which they grow; water is also absorbed and retained by their coriaceous or fleshy leaves with great force. They lose very little by evaporation, compared with other plants. On the other hand, how very small is the quantity of mineral substances which they withdraw from the soil during their almost constant growth in one year, in comparison with the quantity which one crop of wheat of an equal weight receives in three months!

It is by means of moisture that plants receive the necessary alkalies and salts from the soil. In dry summers a phenomenon is observed, which, when the importance of mineral elements to the life of a plant was unknown, could not be explained. The leaves of plants first developed and perfected, and therefore nearer the surface of the soil, shrivel up and become yellow, lose their vitality, and fall off while the plant is in an active state of growth, without any visible cause. This phenomenon is not seen in moist years, nor in evergreen plants, and but rarely in plants which have long and deep roots, nor is it seen in perennials in autumn and winter.

The cause of this premature decay is now obvious. The perfectly-developed leaves absorb continually carbonic acid and ammonia from the atmosphere, which are converted into elements of new leaves, buds, and shoots; but this metamorphosis cannot be effected without the aid of the alkalies, and other mineral substances. If the soil is moist, the latter are continually supplied to an adequate amount, and the plant retains its lively green colour; but if this supply ceases from a want of moisture to dissolve the mineral elements, a separation takes place in the plant itself. The mineral constituents of the juice are withdrawn from the leaves already formed, and are used for the formation of the young shoots; and as soon as the seeds are developed, the vitality of the leaves completely ceases. These withered leaves contain only minute traces of soluble salts, while the buds and shoots are very rich in them.

On the other hand, it has been observed, that where a soil is too highly impregnated with soluble saline materials, these are separated upon the surface of the leaves. This happens to culinary vegetables especially, whose leaves become covered with a white crust. In consequence of these exudations the plant sickens, its organic activity decreases, its growth is disturbed; and if this state continues long, the plant dies. This is most frequently seen in foliaceous plants, the large surfaces of which evaporate considerable quantities of water. Carrots, pumpkins, peas, &c., are frequently thus diseased, when, after dry weather, the plant being near its full growth, the soil is moistened by short showers, followed again by dry weather. The rapid evaporation carries off the water absorbed by the root, and this leaves the salts in the plant in a far greater quantity than it can assimilate. These salts effloresce upon the surface of the leaves, and if they are herbaceous and juicy, produce an effect upon them as if they had been watered with a solution containing a greater quantity of salts than their organism can bear.

Of two plants of the same species, this disease befalls that which is nearest its perfection; if one should have been planted later, or be more backward in its development, the same external cause which destroys the one will contribute to the growth of the other.


My dear Sir,

Having now occupied several letters with the attempt to unravel, by means of chemistry, some of the most curious functions of the animal body, and, as I hope, made clear to you the distinctions between the two kinds of constituent elements in food, and the purposes they severally subserve in sustaining life, let me now direct your attention to a scarcely less interesting and equally important subject—the means of obtaining from a given surface of the earth the largest amount of produce adapted to the food of man and animals.

Agriculture is both a science and an art. The knowledge of all the conditions of the life of vegetables, the origin of their elements, and the sources of their nourishment, forms its scientific basis.

From this knowledge we derive certain rules for the exercise of the ART, the principles upon which the mechanical operations of farming depend, the usefulness or necessity of these for preparing the soil to support the growth of plants, and for removing every obnoxious influence. No experience, drawn from the exercise of the art, can be opposed to true scientific principles, because the latter should include all the results of practical operations, and are in some instances solely derived therefrom. Theory must correspond with experience, because it is nothing more than the reduction of a series of phenomena to their last causes.

A field in which we cultivate the same plant for several successive years becomes barren for that plant in a period varying with the nature of the soil: in one field it will be in three, in another in seven, in a third in twenty, in a fourth in a hundred years. One field bears wheat, and no peas; another beans or turnips, but no tobacco; a third gives a plentiful crop of turnips, but will not bear clover. What is the reason that a field loses its fertility for one plant, the same which at first flourished there? What is the reason one kind of plant succeeds in a field where another fails?

These questions belong to Science.

What means are necessary to preserve to a field its fertility for one and the same plant?—what to render one field fertile for two, for three, for all plants?

These last questions are put by Art, but they cannot be answered by Art.

If a farmer, without the guidance of just scientific principles, is trying experiments to render a field fertile for a plant which it otherwise will not bear, his prospect of success is very small. Thousands of farmers try such experiments in various directions, the result of which is a mass of practical experience forming a method of cultivation which accomplishes the desired end for certain places; but the same method frequently does not succeed, it indeed ceases to be applicable to a second or third place in the immediate neighbourhood. How large a capital, and how much power, are wasted in these experiments! Very different, and far more secure, is the path indicated by SCIENCE; it exposes us to no danger of failing, but, on the contrary, it furnishes us with every guarantee of success. If the cause of failure—of barrenness in the soil for one or two plants—has been discovered, means to remedy it may readily be found.

The most exact observations prove that the method of cultivation must vary with the geognostical condition of the subsoil. In basalt, graywacke, porphyry, sandstone, limestone, &c., are certain elements indispensable to the growth of plants, and the presence of which renders them fertile. This fully explains the difference in the necessary methods of culture for different places; since it is obvious that the essential elements of the soil must vary with the varieties of composition of the rocks, from the disintegration of which they originated.

Wheat, clover, turnips, for example, each require certain elements from the soil; they will not flourish where the appropriate elements are absent. Science teaches us what elements are essential to every species of plants by an analysis of their ashes. If therefore a soil is found wanting in any of those elements, we discover at once the cause of its barrenness, and its removal may now be readily accomplished.

The empiric attributes all his success to the mechanical operations of agriculture; he experiences and recognises their value, without inquiring what are the causes of their utility, their mode of action: and yet this scientific knowledge is of the highest importance for regulating the application of power and the expenditure of capital,—for insuring its economical expenditure and the prevention of waste. Can it be imagined that the mere passing of the ploughshare or the harrow through the soil—the mere contact of the iron—can impart fertility miraculously? Nobody, perhaps, seriously entertains such an opinion. Nevertheless, the modus operandi of these mechanical operations is by no means generally understood. The fact is quite certain, that careful ploughing exerts the most favourable influence: the surface is thus mechanically divided, changed, increased, and renovated; but the ploughing is only auxiliary to the end sought.

In the effects of time, in what in Agriculture are technically called fallows—the repose of the fields—we recognise by science certain chemical actions, which are continually exercised by the elements of the atmosphere upon the whole surface of our globe. By the action of its oxygen and its carbonic acid, aided by water, rain, changes of temperature, &c., certain elementary constituents of rocks, or of their ruins, which form the soil capable of cultivation, are rendered soluble in water, and consequently become separable from all their insoluble parts.

These chemical actions, poetically denominates the "tooth of time," destroy all the works of man, and gradually reduce the hardest rocks to the condition of dust. By their influence the necessary elements of the soil become fitted for assimilation by plants; and it is precisely the end which is obtained by the mechanical operations of farming. They accelerate the decomposition of the soil, in order to provide a new generation of plants with the necessary elements in a condition favourable to their assimilation. It is obvious that the rapidity of the decomposition of a solid body must increase with the extension of its surface; the more points of contact we offer in a given time to the external chemical agent, the more rapid will be its action.

The chemist, in order to prepare a mineral for analysis, to decompose it, or to increase the solubility of its elements, proceeds in the same way as the farmer deals with his fields—he spares no labour in order to reduce it to the finest powder; he separates the impalpable from the coarser parts by washing, and repeats his mechanical bruising and trituration, being assured his whole process will fail if he is inattentive to this essential and preliminary part of it.

The influence which the increase of surface exercises upon the disintegration of rocks, and upon the chemical action of air and moisture, is strikingly illustrated upon a large scale in the operations pursued in the gold-mines of Yaquil, in Chili. These are described in a very interesting manner by Darwin. The rock containing the gold ore is pounded by mills into the finest powder; this is subjected to washing, which separates the lighter particles from the metallic; the gold sinks to the bottom, while a stream of water carries away the lighter earthy parts into ponds, where it subsides to the bottom as mud. When this deposit has gradually filled up the pond, this mud is taken out and piled in heaps, and left exposed to the action of the atmosphere and moisture. The washing completely removes all the soluble part of the disintegrated rock; the insoluble part, moreover, cannot undergo any further change while it is covered with water, and so excluded from the influence of the atmosphere at the bottom of the pond. But being exposed at once to the air and moisture, a powerful chemical action takes place in the whole mass, which becomes indicated by an efflorescence of salts covering the whole surface of the heaps in considerable quantity. After being exposed for two or three years, the mud is again subjected to the same process of washing, and a considerable quantity of gold is obtained, this having been separated by the chemical process of decomposition in the mass. The exposure and washing of the same mud is repeated six or seven times, and at every washing it furnishes a new quantity of gold, although its amount diminishes every time.

Precisely similar is the chemical action which takes place in the soil of our fields; and we accelerate and increase it by the mechanical operations of our agriculture. By these we sever and extend the surface, and endeavour to make every atom of the soil accessible to the action of the carbonic acid and oxygen of the atmosphere. We thus produce a stock of soluble mineral substances, which serves as nourishment to a new generation of plants, materials which are indispensable to their growth and prosperity.


My dear Sir,

Having in my last letter spoken of the general principles upon which the science and art of agriculture must be based, let me now direct your attention to some of those particulars between chemistry and agriculture, and demonstrate the impossibility of perfecting the important art of rearing food for man and animals, without a profound knowledge of our science.

All plants cultivated as food require for their healthy sustenance the alkalies and alkaline earths, each in a certain proportion; and in addition to these, the cerealia do not succeed in a soil destitute of silica in a soluble condition. The combinations of this substance found as natural productions, namely, the silicates, differ greatly in the degree of facility with which they undergo decomposition, in consequence of the unequal resistance opposed by their integral parts to the dissolving power of the atmospheric agencies. Thus the granite of Corsica degenerates into a powder in a time which scarcely suffices to deprive the polished granite of Heidelberg of its lustre.

Some soils abound in silicates so readily decomposable, that in every one or two years, as much silicate of potash becomes soluble and fitted for assimilation as is required by the leaves and straw of a crop of wheat. In Hungary, extensive districts are not uncommon where wheat and tobacco have been grown alternately upon the same soil for centuries, the land never receiving back any of those mineral elements which were withdrawn in the grain and straw. On the other hand, there are fields in which the necessary amount of soluble silicate of potash for a single crop of wheat is not separated from the insoluble masses in the soil in less than two, three, or even more years.

The term fallow, in Agriculture, designates that period in which the soil, left to the influence of the atmosphere, becomes enriched with those soluble mineral constituents. Fallow, however, does not generally imply an entire cessation of cultivation, but only an interval in the growth of the cerealia. That store of silicates and alkalies which is the principal condition of their success is obtained, if potatoes or turnips are grown upon the same fields in the intermediate periods, since these crops do not abstract a particle of silica, and therefore leave the field equally fertile for the following crop of wheat.

The preceding remarks will render it obvious to you, that the mechanical working of the soil is the simplest and cheapest method of rendering the elements of nutrition contained in it accessible to plants.

But it may be asked, Are there not other means of decomposing the soil besides its mechanical subdivision?—are there not substances, which by their chemical operation will equally well or better render its constituents suitable for entering into vegetable organisms? Yes: we certainly possess such substances, and one of them, namely, quick-lime, has been employed for the last century past in England for this purpose; and it would be difficult to find a substance better adapted to this service, as it is simple, and in almost all localities cheap and easily accessible.

In order to obtain correct views respecting the effect of quick-lime upon the soil, let me remind you of the first process employed by the chemist when he is desirous of analysing a mineral, and for this purpose wishes to bring its elements into a soluble state. Let the mineral to be examined be, for instance, feldspar; this substance, taken alone, even when reduced to the finest powder, requires for its solution to be treated with an acid for weeks or months; but if we first mix it with quick-lime, and expose the mixture to a moderately strong heat, the lime enters into chemical combination with certain elements of the feldspar, and its alkali (potass) is set free. And now the acid, even without heat, dissolves not only the lime, but also so much of the silica of the feldspar as to form a transparent jelly. The same effect which the lime in this process, with the aid of heat, exerts upon the feldspar, it produces when it is mixed with the alkaline argillaceous silicates, and they are for a long time kept together in a moist state.

Common potters' clay, or pipe-clay, diffused through water, and added to milk of lime, thickens immediately upon mixing; and if the mixture is kept for some months, and then treated with acid, the clay becomes gelatinous, which would not occur without the admixture with the lime. The lime, in combining with the elements of the clay, liquifies it; and, what is more remarkable, liberates the greater part of its alkalies. These interesting facts were first observed by Fuchs, at Munich: they have not only led to a more intimate knowledge of the nature and properties of the hydraulic cements, but, what is far more important, they explain the effects of caustic lime upon the soil, and guide the agriculturist in the application of an invaluable means of opening it, and setting free its alkalies—substances so important, nay, so indispensable to his crops.

In the month of October the fields of Yorkshire and Oxfordshire look as it they were covered with snow. Whole square miles are seen whitened over with quicklime, which during the moist winter months, exercises its beneficial influence upon the stiff, clayey soil, of those counties.

According to the humus theory, quick-lime ought to exert the most noxious influence upon the soil, because all organic matters contained in it are destroyed by it, and rendered incapable of yielding their humus to a new vegetation. The facts are indeed directly contrary to this now abandoned theory: the fertility of the soil is increased by the lime. The cerealia require the alkalies and alkaline silicates, which the action of the lime renders fit for assimilation by the plants. If, in addition to these, there is any decaying organic matter present in the soil supplying carbonic acid, it may facilitate their development; but it is not essential to their growth. If we furnish the soil with ammonia, and the phosphates, which are indispensable to the cerealia, with the alkaline silicates, we have all the conditions necessary to ensure an abundant harvest. The atmosphere is an inexhaustible store of carbonic acid.

A no less favourable influence than that of lime is exercised upon the soil of peaty land by the mere act of burning it: this greatly enhances its fertility. We have not long been acquainted with the remarkable change which the properties of clay undergo by burning. The observation was first made in the process of analysing the clay silicates. Many of these, in their natural state, are not acted on by acids, but they become perfectly soluble if heated to redness before the application of the acid. This property belongs to potters' clay, pipe-clay, loam, and many different modifications of clay in soils. In their natural state they may be boiled in concentrated sulphuric acid, without sensible change; but if feebly burned, as is done with the pipe-clay in many alum manufactories, they dissolve in the acid with the greatest facility, the contained silica being separated like jelly in a soluble state. Potters' clay belongs to the most sterile kinds of soil, and yet it contains within itself all the constituent elements essential to a most luxurious growth of plants; but their mere presence is insufficient to secure this end. The soil must be accessible to the atmosphere, to its oxygen, to its carbonic acid; these must penetrate it, in order to secure the conditions necessary to a happy and vigorous development of the roots. The elements present must be brought into that peculiar state of combination which will enable them to enter into plants. Plastic clay is wanting in these properties; but they are imparted to it by a feeble calcination.

At Hardwicke Court, near Gloucester, I have seen a garden (Mr. Baker's) consisting of a stiff clay, which was perfectly sterile, become by mere burning extremely fertile. The operation was extended to a depth of three feet. This was an expensive process, certainly; but it was effectual.

The great difference in the properties of burnt and unburnt clay is illustrated by what is seen in brick houses, built in moist situations. In the town of Flanders, for instance, where most buildings are of brick, effloresences of salts cover the surfaces of the walls, like a white nap, within a few days after they are erected. If this saline incrustation is washed away by the rain, it soon re-appears; and this is even observed on walls which, like the gateway of Lisle, have been erected for centuries. These saline incrustations consist of carbonates and sulphates, with alkaline bases; and it is well known these act an important part in vegetation. The influence of lime in their production is manifested by their appearing first at the place where the mortar and brick come into contact.

It will now be obvious to you, that in a mixture of clay with lime, all the conditions exist for the solution of the silicated clay, and the solubility of the alkaline silicates. The lime gradually dissolving in water charged with carbonic acid, acts like milk of lime upon the clay. This explains also the favourable influence which marl (by which term all those varieties of clay rich in chalk are designated) exerts upon most kinds of soil. There are marly soils which surpass all others in fertility for all kinds of plants; but I believe marl in a burnt state must be far more effective, as well as other materials possessing a similar composition; as, for instance, those species of limestone which are adapted to the preparation of hydraulic cements,—for these carry to the soil not only the alkaline bases useful to plants, but also silica in a state capable of assimilation.

The ashes of coals and lignite are also excellent means of ameliorating the soil, and they are used in many places for this purpose. The most suitable may be readily known by their property of forming a gelatinous mass when treated with acids, or by becoming, when mixed with cream of lime, like hydraulic cement,—solid and hard as stone.

I have now, I trust, explained to your satisfaction, that the mechanical operations of agriculture—the application of lime and chalk to lands, and the burning of clay—depend upon one and the same scientific principle: they are means of accelerating the decomposition of the alkaline clay silicates, in order to provide plants, at the beginning of a new vegetation, with certain inorganic matters indispensable for their nutrition.


My dear Sir,

I treated, in my last letter, of the means of improving the condition of the soil for agricultural purposes by mechanical operations and mineral agents. I have now to speak of the uses and effects of animal exuviae, and vegetable matters or manures—properly so called.

In order to understand the nature of these, and the peculiarity of their influence upon our fields, it is highly important to keep in mind the source whence they are derived.

It is generally known, that if we deprive an animal of food, the weight of its body diminishes during every moment of its existence. If this abstinence is continued for some time, the diminution becomes apparent to the eye; all the fat of the body disappears, the muscles decrease in firmness and bulk, and, if the animal is allowed to die starved, scarcely anything but skin, tendon, and bones, remain. This emaciation which occurs in a body otherwise healthy, demonstrates to us, that during the life of an animal every part of its living substance is undergoing a perpetual change; all its component parts, assuming the form of lifeless compounds, are thrown off by the skin, lungs, and urinary system, altered more or less by the secretory organs. This change in the living body is intimately connected with the process of respiration; it is, in truth, occasioned by the oxygen of the atmosphere in breathing, which combines with all the various matters within the body. At every inspiration a quantity of oxygen passes into the blood in the lungs, and unites with its elements; but although the weight of the oxygen thus daily entering into the body amounts to 32 or more ounces, yet the weight of the body is not thereby increased. Exactly as much oxygen as is imbibed in inspiration passes off in expiration, in the form of carbonic acid and water; so that with every breath the amount of carbon and hydrogen in the body is diminished. But the emaciation—the loss of weight by starvation—does not simply depend upon the separation of the carbon and hydrogen; but all the other substances which are in combination with these elements in the living tissues pass off in the secretions. The nitrogen undergoes a change, and is thrown out of the system by the kidneys. Their secretion, the urine, contains not only a compound rich in nitrogen, namely urea, but the sulphur of the tissues in the form of a sulphate, all the soluble salts of the blood and animal fluids, common salt, the phosphates, soda and potash. The carbon and hydrogen of the blood, of the muscular fibre, and of all the animal tissues which can undergo change, return into the atmosphere. The nitrogen, and all the soluble inorganic elements are carried to the earth in the urine.

These changes take place in the healthy animal body during every moment of life; a waste and loss of substance proceeds continually; and if this loss is to be restored, and the original weight and substance repaired, an adequate supply of materials must be furnished, from whence the blood and wasted tissues may be regenerated. This supply is obtained from the food.

In an adult person in a normal or healthy condition, no sensible increase or decrease of weight occurs from day to day. In youth the weight of the body increases, whilst in old age it decreases. There can be no doubt that in the adult, the food has exactly replaced the loss of substance: it has supplied just so much carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and other elements, as have passed through the skin, lungs, and urinary organs. In youth the supply is greater than the waste. Part of the elements of the food remain to augment the bulk of the body. In old age the waste is greater than the supply, and the body diminishes. It is unquestionable, that, with the exception of a certain quantity of carbon and hydrogen, which are secreted through the skin and lungs, we obtain, in the solid and fluid excrements of man and animals, all the elements of their food.

We obtain daily, in the form of urea, all the nitrogen taken in the food both of the young and the adult; and further, in the urine, the whole amount of the alkalies, soluble phosphates and sulphates, contained in all the various aliments. In the solid excrements are found all those substances taken in the food which have undergone no alteration in the digestive organs, all indigestible matters, such as woody fibre, the green colouring matter of leaves ( chlorophyle), wax, &c.

Physiology teaches us, that the process of nutrition in animals, that is, their increase of bulk, or the restoration of wasted parts, proceeds from the blood. The purpose of digestion and assimilation is to convert the food into blood. In the stomach and intestines, therefore, all those substances in the food capable of conversion into blood are separated from its other constituents; in other words, during the passage of the food through the intestinal canal there is a constant absorption of its nitrogen, since only azotised substances are capable of conversion into blood; and therefore the solid excrements are destitute of that element, except only a small portion, in the constitution of that secretion which is formed to facilitate their passage. With the solid excrements, the phosphates of lime and magnesia, which were contained in the food and not assimilated, are carried off, these salts being insoluble in water, and therefore not entering the urine.

We may obtain a clear insight into the chemical constitution of the solid excrements without further investigation, by comparing the faeces of a dog with his food. We give that animal flesh and bones—substances rich in azotised matter—and we obtain, as the last product of its digestion, a perfectly white excrement, solid while moist, but becoming in dry air a powder. This is the phosphate of lime of the bones, with scarcely one per cent. of foreign organic matter.

Thus we see that in the solid and fluid excrements of man and animals, all the nitrogen—in short, all the constituent ingredients of the consumed food, soluble and insoluble, are returned; and as food is primarily derived from the fields, we possess in those excrements all the ingredients which we have taken from it in the form of seeds, roots, or herbs.

One part of the crops employed for fattening sheep and cattle is consumed by man as animal food; another part is taken directly—as flour, potatoes, green vegetables, &c.; a third portion consists of vegetable refuse, and straw employed as litter. None of the materials of the soil need be lost. We can, it is obvious, get back all its constituent parts which have been withdrawn therefrom, as fruits, grain and animals, in the fluid and solid excrements of man, and the bones, blood and skins of the slaughtered animals. It depends upon ourselves to collect carefully all these scattered elements, and to restore the disturbed equilibrium of composition in the soil. We can calculate exactly how much and which of the component parts of the soil we export in a sheep or an ox, in a quarter of barley, wheat or potatoes, and we can discover, from the known composition of the excrements of man and animals, how much we have to supply to restore what is lost to our fields.

If, however, we could procure from other sources the substances which give to the exuviae of man and animals their value in agriculture, we should not need the latter. It is quite indifferent for our purpose whether we supply the ammonia (the source of nitrogen) in the form of urine, or in that of a salt derived from coal-tar; whether we derive the phosphate of lime from bones, apatite, or fossil excrements (the coprolithes).

The principal problem for agriculture is, how to replace those substances which have been taken from the soil, and which cannot be furnished by the atmosphere. If the manure supplies an imperfect compensation for this loss, the fertility of a field or of a country decreases; if, on the contrary, more are given to the fields, their fertility increases.

An importation of urine, or of solid excrements, from a foreign country, is equivalent to an importation of grain and cattle. In a certain time, the elements of those substances assume the form of grain, or of fodder, then become flesh and bones, enter into the human body, and return again day by day to the form they originally possessed.

The only real loss of elements we are unable to prevent is of the phosphates, and these, in accordance with the customs of all modern nations, are deposited in the grave. For the rest, every part of that enormous quantity of food which a man consumes during his lifetime ( say in sixty or seventy years), which was derived from the fields, can be obtained and returned to them. We know with absolute certainty, that in the blood of a young or growing animal there remains a certain quantity of phosphate of lime and of the alkaline phosphates, to be stored up and to minister to the growth of the bones and general bulk of the body, and that, with the exception of this very small quantity, we receive back, in the solid and fluid excrements, all the salts and alkaline bases, all the phosphate of lime and magnesia, and consequently all the inorganic elements which the animal consumes in its food.

We can thus ascertain precisely the quantity, quality, and composition of animal excrements, without the trouble of analysing them. If we give a horse daily 4 1/2 pounds' weight of oats, and 15 pounds of hay, and knowing that oats give 4 per cent. and hay 9 per cent. of ashes, we can calculate that the daily excrements of the horse will contain 21 ounces of inorganic matter which was drawn from the fields. By analysis we can determine the exact relative amount of silica, of phosphates, and of alkalies, contained in the ashes of the oats and of the hay.

You will now understand that the constituents of the solid parts of animal excrements, and therefore their qualities as manure, must vary with the nature of the creature's food. If we feed a cow upon beetroot, or potatoes, without hay, straw or grain, there will be no silica in her solid excrements, but there will be phosphate of lime and magnesia. Her fluid excrements will contain carbonate of potash and soda, together with compounds of the same bases with inorganic acids. In one word, we have, in the fluid excrements, all the soluble parts of the ashes of the consumed food; and in the solid excrements, all those parts of the ashes which are insoluble in water.

If the food, after burning, leaves behind ashes containing soluble alkaline phosphates, as is the case with bread, seeds of all kinds, and flesh, we obtain from the animal by which they are consumed a urine holding in solution these phosphates. If, however, the ashes of food contain no alkaline phosphates, but abound in insoluble earthy phosphates, as hay, carrots, and potatoes, the urine will be free from alkaline phosphates, but the earthy phosphates will be found in the faeces. The urine of man, of carnivorous and graminivorous animals, contains alkaline phosphates; that of herbivorous animals is free from these salts.

The analysis of the excrements of man, of the piscivorous birds (as the guano), of the horse, and of cattle, furnishes us with the precise knowledge of the salts they contain, and demonstrates, that in those excrements, we return to the fields the ashes of the plants which have served as food,—the soluble and insoluble salts and earths indispensable to the development of cultivated plants, and which must be furnished to them by a fertile soil.

There can be no doubt that, in supplying these excrements to the soil, we return to it those constituents which the crops have removed from it, and we renew its capability of nourishing new crops: in one word, we restore the disturbed equilibrium; and consequently, knowing that the elements of the food derived from the soil enter into the urine and solid excrements of the animals it nourishes, we can with the greatest facility determine the exact value of the different kinds of manure. Thus the excrements of pigs which we have fed with peas and potatoes are principally suited for manuring crops of potatoes and peas. In feeding a cow upon hay and turnips, we obtain a manure containing the inorganic elements of grasses and turnips, and which is therefore preferable for manuring turnips. The excrement of pigeons contains the mineral elements of grain; that of rabbits, the elements of herbs and kitchen vegetables. The fluid and solid excrements of man, however, contain the mineral elements of grain and seeds in the greatest quantity.


My dear Sir,

You are now acquainted with my opinions respecting the effects of the application of mineral agents to our cultivated fields, and also the rationale of the influence of the various kinds of manures; you will, therefore, now readily understand what I have to say of the sources whence the carbon and nitrogen, indispensable to the growth of plants, are derived.

The growth of forests, and the produce of meadows, demonstrate that an inexhaustible quantity of carbon is furnished for vegetation by the carbonic acid of the atmosphere.

We obtain from an equal surface of forest, or meadow-land, where the necessary mineral elements of the soil are present in a suitable state, and to which no carbonaceous matter whatever is furnished in manures, an amount of carbon, in the shape of wood and hay, quite equal, and oftimes more than is produced by our fields, in grain, roots, and straw, upon which abundance of manure has been heaped.

It is perfectly obvious that the atmosphere must furnish to our cultivated fields as much carbonic acid, as it does to an equal surface of forest or meadow, and that the carbon of this carbonic acid is assimilated, or may be assimilated by the plants growing there, provided the conditions essential to its assimilation, and becoming a constituent element of vegetables, exist in the soil of these fields.

In many tropical countries the produce of the land in grain or roots, during the whole year, depends upon one rain in the spring. If this rain is deficient in quantity, or altogether wanting, the expectation of an abundant harvest is diminished or destroyed.

Now it cannot be the water merely which produces this enlivening and fertilising effect observed, and which lasts for weeks and months. The plant receives, by means of this water, at the time of its first development, the alkalies, alkaline earths, and phosphates, necessary to its organization. If these elements, which are necessary previous to its assimilation of atmospheric nourishment, be absent, its growth is retarded. In fact, the development of a plant is in a direct ratio to the amount of the matters it takes up from the soil. If, therefore, a soil is deficient in these mineral constituents required by plants, they will not flourish even with an abundant supply of water.

The produce of carbon on a meadow, or an equal surface of forest land, is independent of a supply of carbonaceous manure, but it depends upon the presence of certain elements of the soil which in themselves contain no carbon, together with the existence of conditions under which their assimilation by plants can be effected. We increase the produce of our cultivated fields, in carbon, by a supply of lime, ashes, and marl, substances which cannot furnish carbon to the plants, and yet it is indisputable,—being founded upon abundant experience,—that in these substances we furnish to the fields elements which greatly increase the bulk of their produce, and consequently the amount of carbon.

If we admit these facts to be established, we can no longer doubt that a deficient produce of carbon, or in other words, the barrenness of a field does not depend upon carbonic acid, because we are able to increase the produce, to a certain degree, by a supply of substances which do not contain any carbon. The same source whence the meadow and the forest are furnished with carbon, is also open to our cultivated plants. The great object of agriculture, therefore, is to discover the means best adapted to enable these plants to assimilate the carbon of the atmosphere which exists in it as carbonic acid. In furnishing plants, therefore, with mineral elements, we give them the power to appropriate carbon from a source which is inexhaustible; whilst in the absence of these elements the most abundant supply of carbonic acid, or of decaying vegetable matter, would not increase the produce of a field.

With an adequate and equal supply of these essential mineral constituents in the soil, the amount of carbonic acid absorbed by a plant from the atmosphere in a given time is limited by the quantity which is brought into contact with its organs of absorption.

The withdrawal of carbonic acid from the atmosphere by the vegetable organism takes place chiefly through its leaves; this absorption requires the contact of the carbonic acid with their surface, or with the part of the plant by which it is absorbed.

The quantity of carbonic acid absorbed in a given time is in direct proportion to the surface of the leaves and the amount of carbonic acid contained in the air; that is, two plants of the same kind and the same extent of surface of absorption, in equal times and under equal conditions, absorb one and the same amount of carbon.

In an atmosphere containing a double proportion of carbonic acid, a plant absorbs, under the same condition, twice the quantity of carbon. Boussingault observed, that the leaves of the vine, inclosed in a vessel, withdrew all the carbonic acid from a current of air which was passed through it, however great its velocity. (Dumas Lecon, p.23.) If, therefore, we supply double the quantity of carbonic acid to one plant, the extent of the surface of which is only half that of another living in ordinary atmospheric air, the former will obtain and appropriate as much carbon as the latter. Hence results the effects of humus, and all decaying organic substances, upon vegetation. If we suppose all the conditions for the absorption of carbonic acid present, a young plant will increase in mass, in a limited time, only in proportion to its absorbing surface; but if we create in the soil a new source of carbonic acid, by decaying vegetable substances, and the roots absorb in the same time three times as much carbonic acid from the soil as the leaves derive from the atmosphere, the plant will increase in weight fourfold. This fourfold increase extends to the leaves, buds, stalks, &c., and in the increased extent of the surface, the plant acquires an increased power of absorbing nourishment from the air, which continues in action far beyond the time when its derivation of carbonic acid through the roots ceases. Humus, as a source of carbonic acid in cultivated lands, is not only useful as a means of increasing the quantity of carbon—an effect which in most cases may be very indifferent for agricultural purposes—but the mass of the plant having increased rapidly in a short time, space is obtained for the assimilation of the elements of the soil necessary for the formation of new leaves and branches.

Water evaporates incessantly from the surface of the young plant; its quantity is in direct proportion to the temperature and the extent of the surface. The numerous radical fibrillae replace, like so many pumps, the evaporated water; and so long as the soil is moist, or penetrated with water, the indispensable elements of the soil, dissolved in the water, are supplied to the plant. The water absorbed by the plant evaporating in an aeriform state leaves the saline and other mineral constituents within it. The relative proportion of these elements taken up by a plant, is greater, the more extensive the surface and more abundant the supply of water; where these are limited, the plant soon reaches its full growth, while if their supply is continued, a greater amount of elements necessary to enable it to appropriate atmospheric nourishment being obtained, its development proceeds much further. The quantity, or mass of seed produced, will correspond to the quantity of mineral constituents present in the plant. That plant, therefore, containing the most alkaline phosphates and earthy salts will produce more or a greater weight of seeds than another which, in an equal time has absorbed less of them. We consequently observe, in a hot summer, when a further supply of mineral ingredients from the soil ceases through want of water, that the height and strength of plants, as well as the development of their seeds, are in direct proportion to its absorption of the elementary parts of the soil in the preceding epochs of its growth.

The fertility of the year depends in general upon the temperature, and the moisture or dryness of the spring, if all the conditions necessary to the assimilation of the atmospheric nourishment be secured to our cultivated plants. The action of humus, then, as we have explained it above, is chiefly of value in gaining time. In agriculture, this must ever be taken into account and in this respect humus is of importance in favouring the growth of vegetables, cabbages, &c.

But the cerealia, and plants grown for their roots, meet on our fields, in the remains of the preceding crop, with a quantity of decaying vegetable substances corresponding to their contents of mineral nutriment from the soil, and consequently with a quantity of carbonic acid adequate to their accelerated development in the spring. A further supply of carbonic acid, therefore, would be quite useless, without a corresponding increase of mineral ingredients.

From a morgen of good meadow land, 2,500 pounds weight of hay, according to the best agriculturists, are obtained on an average. This amount is furnished without any supply of organic substances, without manure containing carbon or nitrogen. By irrigation, and the application of ashes or gypsum, double that amount may be grown. But assuming 2,500 pounds weight of hay to be the maximum, we may calculate the amount of carbon and nitrogen derived from the atmosphere by the plants of meadows.

According to elementary analysis, hay, dried at a temperature of 100 deg Reaumur, contains 45.8 per cent. of carbon, and 1 1/2 per cent. of nitrogen. 14 per cent. of water retained by the hay, dried at common temperatures, is driven off at 100 deg. 2,500 pounds weight of hay, therefore, corresponds to 2,150 pounds, dried at 100 deg. This shows us, that 984 pounds of carbon, and 32.2 pounds weight of nitrogen, have been obtained in the produce of one morgen of meadow land. Supposing that this nitrogen has been absorbed by the plants in the form of ammonia, the atmosphere contains 39.1 pounds weight of ammonia to every 3640 pounds weight of carbonic acid (=984 carbon, or 27 per cent.), or in other words, to every 1,000 pounds weight of carbonic acid, 10.7 pounds of ammonia, that is to about 1/100,000, the weight of the air, or 1/60,000 of its volume.

For every 100 parts of carbonic acid absorbed by the surface of the leaves, the plant receives from the atmosphere somewhat more than one part of ammonia.

With every 1,000 pounds of carbon, we obtain—

From a meadow . 32 7/10 pounds of nitrogen.

From cultivated fields,

In Wheat . 21 1/2 " " Oats . 22.3 " " Rye . 15.2 " " Potatoes . 34.1 " " Beetroot . 39.1 " " Clover . 44 " " Peas . 62 " "

Boussingault obtained from his farm at Bechelbronn, in Alsace, in five years, in the shape of potatoes, wheat, clover, turnips, and oats, 8,383 of carbon, and 250.7 nitrogen. In the following five years, as beetroot, wheat, clover, turnips, oats, and rye, 8,192 of carbon, and 284.2 of nitrogen. In a further course of six years, potatoes, wheat, clover, turnips, peas, and rye, 10,949 of carbon, 356.6 of nitrogen. In 16 years, 27,424 carbon, 858 1/2 nitrogen, which gives for every 1,000 carbon, 31.3 nitrogen.

From these interesting and unquestionable facts, we may deduce some conclusions of the highest importance in their application to agriculture.

1. We observe that the relative proportions of carbon and nitrogen, stand in a fixed relation to the surface of the leaves. Those plants, in which all the nitrogen may be said to be concentrated in the seeds, as the cerealia, contain on the whole less nitrogen than the leguminous plants, peas, and clover.

2. The produce of nitrogen on a meadow which receives no nitrogenised manure, is greater than that of a field of wheat which has been manured.

3. The produce of nitrogen in clover and peas, which agriculturists will acknowledge require no nitrogenised manure, is far greater than that of a potato or turnip field, which is abundantly supplied with such manures.

Lastly. And this is the most curious deduction to be derived from the above facts,—if we plant potatoes, wheat, turnips, peas, and clover, (plants containing potash, lime, and silex,) upon the same land, three times manured, we gain in 16 years, for a given quantity of carbon, the same proportion of nitrogen which we receive from a meadow which has received no nitrogenised manure.

On a morgen of meadow-land, we obtain in plants, containing silex, lime, and potash, 984 carbon, 32.2 nitrogen. On a morgen of cultivated land, in an average of 16 years, in plants containing the same mineral elements, silex, lime, and potash, 857 carbon, 26.8 nitrogen.

If we add the carbon and nitrogen of the leaves of the beetroot, and the stalk and leaves of the potatoes, which have not been taken into account, it still remains evident that the cultivated fields, notwithstanding the supply of carbonaceous and nitrogenised manures, produced no more carbon and nitrogen than an equal surface of meadow-land supplied only with mineral elements.

What then is the rationale of the effect of manure,—of the solid and fluid excrements of animals?

This question can now be satisfactorily answered: that effect is the restoration of the elementary constituents of the soil which have been gradually drawn from it in the shape of grain and cattle. If the land I am speaking of had not been manured during those 16 years, not more than one-half, or perhaps than one-third part of the carbon and nitrogen would have been produced. We owe it to the animal excrements, that it equalled in production the meadow-land, and this, because they restored the mineral ingredients of the soil removed by the crops. All that the supply of manure accomplished, was to prevent the land from becoming poorer in these, than the meadow which produces 2,500 pounds of hay. We withdraw from the meadow in this hay as large an amount of mineral substances as we do in one harvest of grain, and we know that the fertility of the meadow is just as dependent upon the restoration of these ingredients to its soil, as the cultivated land is upon manures. Two meadows of equal surface, containing unequal quantities of inorganic elements of nourishment,—other conditions being equal,—are very unequally fertile; that which possesses most, furnishes most hay. If we do not restore to a meadow the withdrawn elements, its fertility decreases. But its fertility remains unimpaired, with a due supply of animal excrements, fluid and solid, and it not only remains the same, but may be increased by a supply of mineral substances alone, such as remain after the combustion of ligneous plants and other vegetables; namely, ashes. Ashes represent the whole nourishment which vegetables receive from the soil. By furnishing them in sufficient quantities to our meadows, we give to the plants growing on them the power of condensing and absorbing carbon and nitrogen by their surface. May not the effect of the solid and fluid excrements, which are the ashes of plants and grains, which have undergone combustion in the bodies of animals and of man, be dependent upon the same cause? Should not the fertility, resulting from their application, be altogether independent of the ammonia they contain? Would not their effect be precisely the same in promoting the fertility of cultivated plants, if we had evaporated the urine, and dried and burned the solid excrements? Surely the cerealia and leguminous plants which we cultivate must derive their carbon and nitrogen from the same source whence the graminea and leguminous plants of the meadows obtain them! No doubt can be entertained of their capability to do so.

In Virginia, upon the lowest calculation, 22 pounds weight of nitrogen were taken on the average, yearly, from every morgen of the wheat-fields. This would amount, in 100 years, to 2,200 pounds weight. If this were derived from the soil, every morgen of it must have contained the equivalent of 110,000 pounds weight of animal excrements (assuming the latter, when dried, at the temperature of boiling water, to contain 2 per cent.).

In Hungary, as I remarked in a former Letter, tobacco and wheat have been grown upon the same field for centuries, without any supply of nitrogenised manure. Is it possible that the nitrogen essential to, and entering into, the composition of these crops, could have been drawn from the soil?

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