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Jan Ingenhousz. Photo: U.S. Public Doman

Jan Ingenhousz, an 18th century Dutch chemist, biologist and physician, would have turned 287 today, and Google is honoring him and his groundbreaking scientific work in a Google Doodle.

Ingenhousz spent the majority of his life as a physician, specifically studying inoculation, but his innate curiosity allowed him to thrive in a number of other fields.

He is renowned in scientific history as the one who revealed the process of photosynthesis, marking one of the most important botanical discoveries ever made.

Ingenhousz was born in the Netherlands. He began studying medicine at the age of 16 at the University of Leuven. He obtained his MD in 1753, but studied for another two years at the same university and sparked an interest in electricity.

In 1755, Ingenhousz started a general medical practice in his hometown of Breda. In 1764, after the death of his father, Ingenhousz embarked on a journey throughout Europe to expand his studies again. His first stop was in England, where he intended to learn emerging immunization techniques against smallpox.

He also traveled to France, Scotland and Switzerland, among other places, to conduct research in chemistry, heat conduction and electricity. He became a close acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin’s during this time as well.

In 1767 he used his knowledge of immunizations to vaccine about 700 people in the village of Hertfordshire to prevent any further spread of smallpox in the area.

As a result of his efforts in Hertfordshire, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa requested his service to vaccinate the royal family, a controversial move at the time as the Austrian medical establishment strictly opposed immunizations.

Empress Maria Theresa continued to employ Ingenhousz as the royal physician to the Habsburg family. In 1775, Ingenhousz married Agatha Maria Jacquin, and they settled in Vienna.

Ingenhousz added plants to his growing list of study interests in the 1770s, after meeting the scientist Joseph Priestley.

Priestley revealed his discovery that plant leaves absorb and emit gases, but Ingenhousz wanted to learn more.

In 1779, Ingenhousz found that plants give off bubbles from their leaves when in the presence of light. But in the shade, those bubbles eventually stopped. Ingenhousz then determined that the gas given off by plants in the light was oxygen, and identified carbon dioxide as the gas released by plants in the dark.

He also realized that the amount of oxygen given off in the light is more than the amount of CO2 released in the dark. This discovery showed that some of the mass of plants comes from the air, not just the water and nutrients in the soil.

Ingenhousz published a paper on his groundbreaking work, and lived another 20 years before his death in 1799. His wife died the following year.

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