2. Transmutation in Organic Nature

[Holleman's use of the word organic differs from that of modern chemistry; nowadays the term refers to chemical compounds containing the element carbon, independent of the source of that carbon; Holleman's use dates back to a time when all carbon compounds were considered to have originated - directly or indirectly - from living organisms. Organic nature thus refers here to the living, biological world.]

2.1. Vitalism in Agricultural Science at the Beginning of the 19th Century

Towards the end of the 18th century the alchemistic way of viewing matter was mostly extinct. Certain ways of thinking that can broadly be considered as alchemistic have, however, survived for considerably longer. Here belongs the idea that in organic nature transmutations of elements and even the creation of matter can occur spontaneously. The former process may be called biological transmutation ; there the origin of these transmutations has mostly become ascribed to a strange organically acting "life force", which one may speak of as vital energy. Thus it was the opinion of the leading agriculturalist Thaer that under certain circumstances calcium in the plant became changed into silicon, whilst this substance may itself, according to him, be formed from potassium. Lampadius (1832) accepted that silicon existed in plants due to its new creation.

2.2. Biological Transmutation Experiments to 1842

Although voices against the vitalistic ideas were not lacking, no reliable evidence was put forward, so vitalism remained in the beginning of the nineteenth century the main, ruling concept. To this end agriculturalists such as Thaer and Einhof, who apparently enjoyed the greatest fame, contributed considerably. There was no lack of researchers who applied themselves to find experimental evidence for the vitalistic concept.

Work was stimulated in this respect during the years 1795, '96 and '97 when the Berlin Academy of Science announced a competition with the following aim (by means of which was considered the possible role of a "life force", and in the broadest sense the creation and destruction of elements, under the influence of the organic process, belong here as well): Of which type are the earthly materials which are encountered by means of chemical analysis of native grain species? Do they come into the grains as they are found, or do they come into being by means of the life force and brought into growth by the workings of the plant?

The award fell to Schrader for experiments regarding the formation of minerals in grains. He allowed seeds of wheat, barley and rye, amongst others, to germinate in an artificial medium of flowers of sulphur (that was shown to be completely ash free) and watered them with distilled water. Contamination from dust was guarded for. From analyses of the developed seedlings compared with the seeds used he concluded that mineral matter had indeed been created.

Similar experiments were conducted by Braconnot (1807) who enjoyed considerable reputation as a chemist. He allowed plants from seed to grow on different artificial media (flowers of sulphur, red lead oxide, granulated lead, pure river sand and even an organic product; decomposed wood that was extracted with hot water). Although he knew of the importance of an analysis of the growth medium he presented no results there from; he demonstrated the growth media as completely insoluble in water. An analysis of the seed was also missing. Nevertheless he concluded that considerable formation of the mineral components, especially potassium in experiments with mustard seed and radish, had taken place.

Braconnot was, in his vitalistic opinion, even more radical than some of his peers and prophesied a return to the science of the theory of Thales, that everything originates from water. The mineral kingdom should then be considered as the immense residuum, the big storehouse, in which the organic realm unceasingly disposes of matter. Matter, in all its diversity, should, according to Braconnot, originate by means of fabrication from the proto-water. He supposed that not only water (that in ancient times was considered to be an element) but also all the other elements, such as potassium, are formed from hydrogen and oxygen. The occurrence of fossils, according to him, proved this. Moreover any salts added to the soil should be deleterious to plant growth.

Against the above described research stand replications by Lessaigne (1821) and Jablonski (1836) who found not the slightest increase in the amount of ash in the plant above that in the seed. Therewith they joined the critics of vitalism, of which de Saussure (1767 - 1845) may be seen as the most important representative.

De Saussure had already in 1804 let a first summary of his work appear under the title Chemical Researches on Vegetation. It is an example of careful scientific work in which he was beyond his time. A large part of his opinions about plant physiology, which are still valid today, were already placed and supported in this work by quantitative experiments. As a follower of Lavoisier, Saussure stood strongly with the standpoint of the conservation of matter and referred all transmutation and creation to the realm of fables. He put special emphasis on the necessity in this field to be absolutely certain, with experiments, that the so called created matter was not already present in the environment. So he demonstrated, for example, that the presence of silicates in the plant, which were attributed to the life-force by Lampadius, were in reality determined by the amount of silicon in the soil.

The work of Saussure later turned out not to be completely fruitful, chiefly because of his imperfect chemical analyses. This did not however take away his contribution to an understanding of the life processes in the plant, especially his putting exact research methods to the fore, which has been shown to be of fundamental significance.

2.3. An Attempt at an Historical Justification of the Vitalistic Idea

A modern writer of this period of agricultural science (Browne 1944) was surprised by the tenacity with which the vitalistic way of thinking was maintained until c.1840. He viewed this phase as a backward step in the development of science and ascribed it in part to external factors such as a lack of communication between scholars whereby either previous researches such as that by Saussure were overlooked or the uncritical adoption of others such as Braconnot. This applied especially to the changing understanding of the influences of soil and fertilizers on plant growth, which was still at a primitive stage.

The uncertainty that prevailed in this area during the first decades of the previous century can be more or less understood when taken within the framework of the then existing conception of nature. One must place oneself into ways of thinking that included the immediately given macroscopic image of nature and which were totally free from an atomic image of the world that was later to rule physics. Suppose that an agriculturalist determined that during its growth a plant changed its chemical composition. This process happened in front of direct observation in a manner which differed strongly from a chemical process and which is beyond the nature of an organism; it appears to be taken up and subjected to some other, higher power than exists in the inorganic world. With the changing insights into the assimilation and taking up of salts by the root system, etc. still in an initial phase, it is therefore not so astonishing that parallel with the external metamorphosis of the plant, a metamorphosis of the matter from which it is built could be accepted, which itself extends to the transmutation of the elements present in the plant. [The existing laws of physics can explain how, due to the gravitational force, an apple falls down out of a tree; was it the vital force that got it up there in the first place?!]

First and foremost, the strong development of inorganic chemistry, bound with the atomic conception, took the upper hand, apparently banishing this vitalistic, holistic thinking. Indeed there is in the atomic world conception no room for the formation of an idea of living substance [i.e. there is no scientific difference between, say, biologically fixed nitrogen and nitrogen of an inorganic origin; see however the publications of the Arbeidsbericht of the Institut fur Biologisch-Dynamische Forschung E. V., Darmstadt, Germany]. What it comes down to is that the immutable elements are only able, in this image, to change places. Above all, they are thought of exclusively, as being independent of the universe in which they exist; either of an organism or the inorganic world. There is, in this world, no possible transformation that could carry a life-characteristic.

Therefore a situation has gradually arisen wherein, on the one side, the workings of life are not recognised [i.e. the vitalistic force] but on the other side, the inorganic [physical] side of the researched, living being, is exclusively taken. This was an essential development that cannot be valued highly enough. The inorganic could also be viewed in living beings, separately, as it were, in artificial cultures and experiments, which is indispensable to an objective, scientific handling of living nature.

This does not preclude that, in the future, ways shall be found to be able to study life in a manner that will literally enable life's own intimate character to be seen to its own, full, advantage. It is also certain that, from new observations in this direction [not stated, but presumably those of Goethean observation, in biology in general, but especially in the fields of biodynamic agriculture and anthroposophical medicine; though Holleman's own transmutation studies reported here were (outwardly) conducted along purely conventional lines; see section 10], new insights can be expected.

The idea of a life force that temporarily played a role in the transition period leading to the atomic conception was, before long, shown to be without content, and was only of use to cover a lack of insight. It marks a point in time wherein the living had to be removed from human consciousness in order to make way for the non-living.

2.4. The End of the Vitalistic Period: Wiegmann and Polstorff's Experiments

The uncertainty that continued into the third decade of the 19th century regarding the possible role of a life force in plant development led, at the end of this period, to a competition, this time written anonymously and published in the Royal Goettingen Society of Science. Drawn up for the then already strongly altered scientific climate so that, in opposition to the 1806 competition, this time the word life force was not used. The question was:

Are the inorganic elements which are found in plants such essential components of living plants that they are needed for their complete development and are they externally provided?

The answer considered for award came from Wiegmann (professor of soil science in Brunswijk) and Polstorff (pharmacist also from Brunswijk). It was based on experiments that for the first time were conducted according to rules that could at present still be valid.

Wiegmann, from the literature of previous researchers, came to the following conclusions:

  1. That plants need for their complete development a certain quantity of inorganic constituents, that later turn up as ash components.
  2. That these mineral components are primarily taken up from the soil and for a very much smaller proportion from the atmosphere (falling dust, rainwater or snow).

For a proof of these two propositions the authors set up a series of pot experiments with a synthetic soil, composed of a mixture of cleaned quartz sand with the, as then understood, most important inorganic soil components (added to by a number of humic salts that at that time were considered to be indispensable for plant growth). Control experiments were set up with only the afore mentioned quartz sand for soil. An analysis of it demonstrated that apart from silicon dioxide it contained 2% other soil components. The experimental plants were tobacco, vetch, clover, barley, oats and buckwheat. The cultures were protected against dust and regularly watered with distilled water.

After the plants had come to the end of their development, they were harvested (whereby the roots were washed with distilled water to remove attached soil), dried, ashed, and each ash sample weighed and analysed. After correction for the seed's ash content, it was found that the experimental plants had taken up 3 times more mineral substance than the controls. The development of the latter was strongly behind those of the experimental plants. Tobacco had taken up the greatest quantity of ash components, the other plants, in their afore named order, less.

With this result the first part of the competition was answered. The last question posed; ... and are they (the inorganic elements) provided externally? led to many different interpretations, but was presumably aimed at evidence for the conservation of elements as according to Lavoisier. It was this interpretation that Wiegmann and Polstorff took. They decided to undertake an experiment that once and for all must bring to a conclusion the fought over problem of biological transmutation and respectively, creation.

2.5. The Experimentum Crucis of Wiegmann and Polstorff

To come to a definite conclusion here, the authors followed the technique of their predecessors, but with a soil that consisted of the most inert material known to them at that time. They let 28 seeds of Lepidium sativum germinate in distilled water in a platinum crucible that was filled with fine platinum wire. The crucible was placed under a glass bell jar through which circulated a mixture of 1% carbon dioxide. The seeds germinated and grew into small plants until, after 26 days, they began to die. After drying the crucible and its contents, ashing and weighing obtained 0.0025 grams of ash. The weight of ash obtained from 28 seeds was likewise 0.0025 grams.

Wiegmann and Polstorff made from this experiment the following conclusions:

  1. Plants can for a period of time continue living on the reserves of inorganic materials present in the seeds from which they came, but that growth stops once these reserves are insufficient for their further development.
  2. The inorganic components of plants can in no way be considered as products of their life process, nor as results of unknown elements, nor exceptional derivatives of the four elements that are known as the building blocks of organic matter.
  3. As the plants were isolated from all unwanted sources of inorganic matter, the quantity that they contained cannot be greater than the original amount that was present in the seed.

It was as if the world had been waiting impatiently for Wiegmann and Polstorff's results so radical was the change brought about in the publications of scientific circles. The last remnants of the vitalistic conception were thus swept away and from here on, in the rest of the century there is (with a single exception, see section 4.3) no more talk of the possibility of biological transmutation.

Should the experiment of Wiegmann and Polstorff be compared with the work of the previous century, then it is the technical advancement that is indeed noteworthy. On further consideration, apart from appreciation for the exact experimental method, there are some doubts whether the publication of 1842 is as decisive as it first appears. Remarkably criticism was never expressed regarding such an important experiment and the negative conclusions were blindly taken up by the scientific world. One cannot thus wholly withdraw from the impression that not only the researchers but also the scientific community harboured the not completely conscious wish to promote the negative decision, to undermine the possibility of biological transmutation so as to force this problem to be shown as being forever settled.

In order to give this assertion content experiments have to meet conditions that must firstly be formulated in order to count as sufficiently conclusive.