Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/October 1888/Sketch of J. B. Boussingault

PSM V33 D740 Jean Baptiste Boussingault.jpg



BOUSSINGAULT, says M. P. P. Dehérain, "by applying the rigorous processes of analytical chemistry to the study of agricultural questions, laid the foundations of a new science on solid ground. When he began, agricultural chemistry was still groping in infantile efforts. ... At the end of his long life he was able to see the processes of investigation which he had devised employed everywhere; his ideas, tested by thousands of experiments, taught in all the schools; and agricultural science sure enough of itself to guide those who were practicing it and lead them to success." M. E. Tisserand says that "the influence of his labors and publications upon agriculture was immense, and that they were the real point of departure of the great scientific agricultural movement which has been executed during the last forty years." We find his life, as we review it, for one who was so great in works wholly of the laboratory and the farm, to have been unusually full of incident and adventure.

Jean Baptiste Joseph Dieudonné Boussingault was born in Paris, February 2, 1802, and died on the 11th of May, 1887. His father, a modest tradesman, sent him to the classical course of the Collége Louis le Grand, without any particular thought of directing him to science; but one of his comrades introduced him to the laboratory. of Thénard at the Sorbonne, and he was strongly attracted toward chemistry. He became a frequent attendant at the scientific courses, and was accustomed to repeat at home the experiments with which he had been most struck. Classical studies no longer interesting him, he left the college and attached himself to the lecture-classes of Thénard, Biot, Gay-Lussac, and Cuvier, At eighteen years of age he entered the School of Mines at Saint-Etienne, whence he was graduated an engineer in 1822. He had already published in 1820 a memoir on platinum silicide, which was marked by sagacity and precision, a work which he was destined to resume and complete fifty-six years afterward, without modifying his first conclusions.

In his twentieth year, and when he was full of ardor in the pursuit of science, and thirsting for the glory of conquering in new fields of investigation, and at the very time, it seems, when he was contemplating a journey to Asia, he received a proposition from an English company to go to South America, to recover some old mines that had been abandoned for many years and resume the working of them. A scheme had also been broached for founding at Bogota a school of mines like that at Saint-Etienne; and as there were explorations to be made in the volcanic districts, and the observations and determinations that had been begun by Humboldt to be carried on, Boussingault accepted the mission with its tempting prospects of further scientific work. In preparation for it, he doubled his diligence at the Sorbonne and the Museum, took lessons from Arago in the management of instruments of observation, and obtained letters of introduction from Humboldt, He took passage in September, 1822, in an American brig of eighteen guns, which did not succeed in making the landing at Laguayra without having "a brush" with a Spanish frigate.

Boussingault found the country in the midst of the revolution against Spanish rule. Bolivar had united Venezuela and New Granada into the Republic of Colombia, and had propagated the insurrectionary movement into Peru. The circumstances were hardly favorable for the prosecution of the peaceful work he had marked out. He sought Bolivar in his camp, to consult with him concerning the course he should pursue. The interview was rudely interrupted by a fusillade; it was, however, only a picket-skirmish, and the Liberator, resuming the conversation, remarked; "You will observe, sir, that you have come to a country where the miner's pick is less used than the soldier's musket; it is easier for me to give you an officer's commission than an engineer's license." Boussingault accepted the office of lieutenant-colonel.

Boussingault spent ten years in South America, making use of every opportunity to study the grand phenomena in which that region is so rich, and reaped as the fruit of his sojourn an abundant harvest of observations in many departments of science. His work included numerous mineral analyses; the discovery of a new mineral, which he named, after one of his teachers, Gay-Lussite; analyses of the milk of the "cow-tree," of palm-wax, of guanos, and of the thermal waters of Venezuela; and the discovery in the province of Antioquia of a bed of platinum, a metal which had previously been known only as it was disseminated in sands. He often made his analyses of minerals on horseback, with the aid of a portable balance; he carried a Fortin barometer slung over his shoulder, with which, he estimated the height of mountains. His methods of investigation were sometimes extraordinarily ingenious. In taking the temperature, for instance, in the crater of Pasto, having found his thermometer inadequate, he let down some of the tin-foil wrappings of his chocolate-cakes. The tin was melted. The temperature was therefore higher than the melting point of that metal, or more than 235° C. He then let down a pistol-ball, which was not melted. The temperature was thus found to be lower than the melting-point of lead, or less than 332° C, and was therefore somewhere between the two extremes. The guide who accompanied him on this adventure could not conceal his nervousness at hearing the subterranean roarings of the volcano, and, looking into the crater, asked, "What if it should burst out?" "Then we should be lost," replied Boussingault. The guide answered, calmed by the coolness of his superior, "That is what I think too," In 1831 he accomplished the ascent of Chimborazo, which Humboldt had been obliged to give up, with the loss of one of his instruments—and recovered the instrument. Boussingault had many stories of his adventures in the South American wilds, which he used to tell with much enjoyment, and which his friends found very entertaining. During his travels on the pampas he was attended by an Indian, who cared for him as if he had been a child. He having been attacked by a violent fever, the Indian saved his life by himself chewing the proper food for his helpless patient and putting it into his mouth. On these plains Boussingault made his investigations of curare and other poisons, and of the properties of coca. He witnessed a number of earthquakes. On one such occasion he was obliged to drag out by the feet some unfortunate persons, who had prostrated themselves in front of a church in prayer, to save them from being crushed by the falling building. The stupefied natives made loud confessions of their sins, concerning which the chemist used to remark, when telling of them in after-years, that he heard some most curious stories.

Boussingault returned to France in 1833, having gained a hhig scientific reputation. The numerous contributions which he had sent to the Academy, says M. Dehérain, had revealed in him a sagacious and intrepid observer, knowing how to see well, and endowed with a broad critical sense. He was immediately appointed Professor of Chemistry in the Scientific Faculty at Lyons, then made dean of the faculty in 1837, Thénard's successor at the Sorbonne, and afterward professor in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris—an office which he held titularly till the end of his life, while he retired from active work in it in 1875, and was succeeded by M. Schloesing.

M. Boussingault's career was diversified by a short period— from 1848 to 1851—of political service, in which he represented the department of the Lower Rhine in the Constituent Assembly, and was nominated Councilor of State. He discharged the duties of these offices—which he had accepted from motives of patriotism alone—while, his political activity being regarded as merely temporary and for an emergency, his professorship at the Conservatory was kept open for him. Having bade a final good-by to politics in December, 1851, he used afterward to say, "There are few men of science who have succeeded in it, and science has always lost by it." But he always followed political events with a lively interest. Although his liberal and republican opinions were subjected to more than one blow from the events which were enacted in France, he did not consider it his duty to refuse the distinctions which were addressed to the man of science; and, while he held himself apart from the official world, he had occasion to give Napoleon III some good advice—which was not followed—concerning the expedition to Mexico. By his marriage, in 1833, with Mile. Le Bel, an Alsacian heiress, M. Boussingault became joint proprietor, with his brother-in-law, of the fine estate of Bechelbronn, in the Lower Rhine. The cultivation of this farm afforded excellent opportunities for experiments on the applications of chemistry to agriculture, concerning which it also suggested many questions; and the skill which had been cultivated and so creditably employed among the volcanoes and in the pampas of South America, now found a more practical field for its exercise in the investigation of matters which touched the vital interests of the nation, and, individually, of a large proportion of its members. These investigations laid the foundation of the science of agricultural chemistry as it is studied and practiced to-day; and Boussingault's French friends claim, not without reason, that his Bechelbronn farm was the prototype of the farm at Rothamsted, in England, and furnished the model after which the German laboratories for agricultural investigation were planned.

M. Boussingault's greatest scientific work, that for which he was most famous, was connected with his experiments upon the value of food-rations and the influence of various chemical agents upon the growth of plants; and those to ascertain whence plants derive their constituent elements. When he began them very little was definitely known on these subjects; even the composition of hay was not correctly understood. It was not his privilege to carry these inquiries to a complete result; but he made the initiatory intelligent efforts toward solving them, set the work well afoot, and pointed out to those who are still seeking with accumulated skill and intelligence the way which they should pursue. "The processes," says M. Dehérain, "for the estimation of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen had been made effective; the methods were still laborious, but sure; M. Boussingault employed them, and in a few years succeeded in, to a large extent, sketching the great work which is still being prosecuted, without in any way changing the programme which the masters had laid out nearly fifty years before. His robust good sense was not deceived. He saw how the problem could be approached with exact methods of elementary analysis. If he had tried at this time to follow in M. Chevreul's tracks and undertake the immediate analysis of agricultural products, he would have been foiled. The time had not come, and it is interesting to compare from this point of view his first experiments on germination with those which he executed forty years later, when the progress of organic chemistry had made accessible what was not within reach at the beginning." In his analysis of plant-foods and his studies of the origin of the nitrogen in herbivorous animals, the rigor of his methods was marked; his conclusions were reached slowly, not from one or a few experiments, but after a series of them. "One must know," he would say, "how to criticise himself; it is not till after he has exhausted all objections that he can estimate the value of them, and come to a conclusion." His labors were characterized rather by the clear and precise view of the end to be reached, abundance of observed facts, and lucidity of demonstration, than by ingenuity of methods. It was only rarely that he permitted himself to indulge in those bold and specious generalizations which are so pleasing to many and are so quickly forgotten; and before the end of his life he was cured of all disposition toward them. "Skepticism, even a little harsh in regard to the labors of others, had become habitual with him."

With such slow deliberation and painstaking care he pursued through more than thirty years, in his laboratory and upon his farm at Bechelbronn, his experiments on the composition of plants and their parts; of soils and manures; the effects of different soils and different manures, of no soil (or only sand or gravel) and no manure, of air as it exists and of air purified of all foreign elements, upon the growth of plants; varying the experiments in every conceivable way, year after year, testing them one by another, and comparing them one with another—all for the double purposes of learning whence plants derive their nitrogen, and what are the best kind and form of fertilizing material for each plant and for each kind and condition of soil. The first question is still not solved. On the other side, the investigations have contributed greatly to the improvement of agricultural methods and to the rewards of wise cultivation. The results of these studies are embodied in the "Rural Economy" and the "Agronomy," and in such papers in the journals of scientific societies as those on "The Estimation of Ammonia in Waters"; on "The Quantity of Ammonia contained in the Rain, Snow, Dew, and Fog collected at Liebfrauenberg"; on "The Method of Estimation of Nitric Acid in Presence of Organic Matters"; on "The Quantity of Nitric Acid contained in Rain, Fog, and Dew"; on "The Influence of Vegetable Mold on the Nitrification of Organic Nitrogenous Matter used as Manure"; on the inquiry "Whether Nitrogen is emitted during the Decomposition of Carbonic Acid by Leaves"; on "The Relation between the Volume of Acid decomposed and that of Freed Oxygen"; and many others. "He verified," says M. Tissandier, "the fact, only half seen by his predecessors, that plants fix the carbon contained in the carbonic acid of the air; he also proved definitely that plants decompose water to appropriate its hydrogen to themselves. He determined that plants derive nitrogen from the soil, and that, according to Lavoisier, in the vegetable kingdom as in the laboratory, 'nothing is created, nothing lost.' What is put into the soil as manure appears again in the plant as the crop." "Undoubtedly," says M. Dehérain, "the services which he has rendered to agricultural science by demonstrating the intervention of combined nitrogen in animal or vegetable nutrition are immense. The estimation of the value of rations and of manures rests upon principles that he has laid down; but whatever admiration we may feel for this part of his work, however great may be its practical utility, M. Boussingault has left it unfinished, and has never pointed out how atmospheric nitrogen is drawn into the movement of life."

M. Boussingault's eldest daughter having been married to a son of Jacob Holtzer, proprietor of extensive iron-works on the Loire, his son-in-law built him a spacious laboratory at the shops. Having been driven from Alsace by the Franco-German War, he afterward spent a considerable part of the year at this place, where he made his studies upon iron and steel. M. Boussingault published a memoir on the extraction of oxygen from the atmosphere by means of baryta, and conducted an investigation, with M. Dumas, of the proportions in which the constituents of the atmosphere are mingled. His "Rural Economy" was published in 1844, and an English translation in 1845. Revised and enlarged, and embodying the fruit of years of additional experiments, it was given forth in a new form, in 1861-'64, as "Agronomie, Chimie Agricole, et Physiologic," in three volumes. M. Boussingault was made a grand officer of the Legion of Honor in 1876. He received the Thénard medal of the "Société d'Encouragement" in 1872, and the Copley medal of the Royal Society of England in 1878. These medals he kept very carefully, along with the more modest medal which Bolivar had given him on their parting, and of which he thought more than of either of the others, for it was associated with the bright days of the South American life of his youth.