"Ken Whitman’s field of special competence ... was photosynthesis; his doctoral thesis concerned the 7-carbon sugar sedoheptulose, which occupies a momentary place within the immense chain of reactions whereby the five-sixths of the triosephosphate pool that does not form starch is returned to ribulose-5-phosphate. The process was elegant, and few men under forty were more at home than Ken upon the gigantic ladder, forged by light, that carbon dioxide descends to become carbohydrate. … [B]ut by this point in his career Ken had grown impatient with the molecular politics of sugar and longed to approach the mysterious heart of CO2 fixation — chlorophyll’s transformation of visible light into chemical energy … the lone reaction that counterbalances the vast expenditures of respiration, that reverses decomposition and death …. " –John Updike, "Couples"
FIRST EDITIONS OF TWO MILESTONES IN THE DISCOVERY OF PHOTOSYNTHESIS; OUTSTANDING COPIES.
Since ancient times naturalists have noted the peculiar powers of green plants. A small seed grows in size and mass over the years and eventually becomes an enormous tree, but without any apparent intake of food. The natural, and early, assumption was that plants were, in effect, extracting nutrition from the soil in which they grow, but in a famous seventeenth-century experiment, Jan Baptist von Helmont planted a five-pound willow stem in a pot of soil. Over the course of five years the sprig grew into a 169-pound tree, while the weight of the soil in which it had been planted decreased by only two ounces. Von Helmont assumed that the missing mass came from water — the only other apparent source of raw material available to his willow. Later scientists guessed correctly that plants lost a significant part of their water intake through evaporation, and that atmospheric gases must somehow also play a role in a plant’s creation of its own substance. Today, of course, we know that through a process called photosynthesis, green plants can use water and carbon dioxide as raw materials, and light as an energy source, to manufacture biomass in the form of carbohydrates, discarding oxygen into the atmosphere as a waste product. As Updike points out, this mechanism interlocks elegantly with its biochemical mirror image — respiration — the process by which all organisms, plants as well as animals, break down carbohydrate in order to generate energy in a form that can be used by the organism, consuming oxygen in the process and creating carbon dioxide as a waste product. Photosynthesis, by reversing the effects of respiration, is essential to the long-term viability of life on earth.
Some two and a half centuries of research has elucidated the mechanisms of photosynthesis, and revealed a beautiful and complex chain of reactions — a “gigantic ladder, forged by light,” in Updike’s words — by which chlorophyll in plant cells captures energy from incident sunlight and uses it to create carbohydrate from carbon dioxide. (See, for example, Robert E. Blankenship, Molecular Mechanisms of Photosynthesis (2d ed. 2014).) The two papers offered here document two early and critical milestones in that history — Joseph Priestley’s seminal discovery that green plants can somehow revive the air in a sealed container in which combustion or respiration has taken place, and once again enable it support life (by, we would now say, consuming carbon dioxide and generating oxygen); and Jan IngenHousz’s more detailed study of the phenomenon, which revealed, among other things, that this action of green plants takes place only in the presence of light. Both of these great scientists were prepared for their work in photosynthesis by wide-ranging interests and studies, contact with key Enlightenment scholars, and careful attention to experimental technique.
After a period of early interest and work in philosophy, theology, language, and aesthetics, “Priestley was ordained and obtained an LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh (1764) …. There he also began his scientific career, with the writing of his History of Electricity for which he enlisted the support of Benjamin Franklin [and others], whom he met in London late in 1765. At their suggestion — before the History was published but after some of his experiments were known privately to sponsors — he was nominated and elected F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society] in 1766. … Early in 1767, because of growing family responsibilities and the perennial financial and sectarian problems of Warrington [an academy at which he held a teaching position], Priestley resigned … to become minister of Mill-Hill Chapel, a major Presbyterian congregation in Leeds. The History of Electricity (1767) and History of Optics (1772) were published while he was at Leeds, and there he began his most famous scientific researches, those into the nature and property of gases.” (DSB.) Later in life, in response to political and religious persecution (the former due to his support of the French Revolution; the latter due to his Unitarian views), he emigrated to America, where he was befriended by Thomas Jefferson, and where he died in 1804.
“Observations on Different Kinds of Air” – The discovery of gases and photosynthesis:
"In 1772 Priestley published an account of five years of experiments with 'airs' (gases). The work he described was so important that it immediately established him as one of the great chemists of the day. While he was in Leeds, Priestley discovered three gaseous oxides of nitrogen, including nitrous oxide ('laughing gas') and hydrogen chloride gas. Before he began his experiment, chemists had known only three gases: hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and air" (Richard Morris, The Last Sorcerers).
As important as the gases Priestley discovered- doubling the known number of gases- was the experimental technique he used. "He gained particular renown for an improved pneumatic trough in which, by collecting gases over mercury instead of in water, he was able to isolate and examine gases that were soluble in water" (Britannica). His experimental innovations led to a dramatic increase of the number of gases identified over the next several decades. (Priestley himself would go on to discover seven additional gases.)
Of all the achievements reported in Priestley's great paper, “The most surprising of these ... was the discovery of the 'restoration' of air by vegetation. Considering the 'consumption of air by fires of all kinds, volcanoes, animals breathing, and so forth', Priestley was convinced that there must be some provision, by God in nature, for remedying the injury which the atmosphere receives ... 'In what manner the process in nature operates, to produce so remarkable an effect,' Priestley wrote [p. 166], 'I do not pretend to have discovered', but vegetation did restore bad air ... He had not yet recognized the agency of light in the process; he didn’t understand that plants used the 'fixed air' in the atmosphere in a complex process of photosynthesis. He had, however, started a program of investigation that would involve numbers of chemists and plant physiologists for a number of years” (R. E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley).
Towards the discovery of oxygen:
“In some ‘miscellaneous observations’ [at the end of the paper], a quantity of air was made by heating saltpetre, and in it ‘a candle burned just as in common air’, or ‘not only burned, but the flame was increased, and something was heard like a hissing, similar to the decrepitation of nitre in an open fire’ [p. 245]. Priestley, as he later recognized, had here obtained dephlogisticated air (oxygen) before November, 1772” (Partington, A History of Chemistry). Printing and the Mind of Man, 217.
Jan IngenHousz (the name is also spelled Ingen-Housz and Ingenhousz) had a diverse range of scientific accomplishments before tackling the internal economy of plants. He graduated from the University of Louvain in 1753. “After that he travelled [in] Europe for another four years and attended courses at the universities of Paris, Leyden and Edinburgh, not only in medicine but also in physics and chemistry. … In Edinburgh he specialized in gynaecology,” and came into contact with key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. He then returned to his hometown of Breda “as a medical doctor …. Being a well[-]known and respected man, his medical practice turned into a flourishing business. It left him little time for his experimental work in physics and chemistry. Electricity was one of his favourite study objects, and after the patients had been seen and treated, he disappeared in his make-shift laboratory to perform experiments with ‘electriseermachines’ of his own design ….” (Priestley mentioned the work of “the ingenious Dr. Ingenhaus” in his History of Electricity.) He then moved to London, where he met Benjamin Franklin (whose work on electricity he translated into Latin) and became a strong proponent of vaccination as a means of preventing smallpox. The Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa invited him to Vienna to inoculate the Imperial family, and his success made him famous. He was then apparently sent to Paris by Maria Theresa “to investigate why her daughter, Marie Antoinette, who married the French dauphin on 16 May 1770, had not yet conceived a child.” (She refused to condescend to be examined by a commoner.) In Livorno he experimented with electric fish. Geerdt Magiels, From Sunlight to Insight: Jan IngenHousz, The Discovery of Photosynthesis & Science in the Light of Ecology (Brussels Univ. Press 2010).
“Since there is no evidence that Ingen-Housz had worked on photosynthesis previously, it must have been Priestley’s publications on the subject that motivated his own investigations. The book in which Ingen-Housz reported his results … advanced the understanding of the phenomenon considerably. He established that only the green parts of a plant can ‘restore’ the air, that they do this only when illuminated by sunlight, and that the active part of the sun’s radiation is in the visible light and not in the heat radiation. In addition he found that plants, like animals, exhibit respiration, that respiration continues day and night, and that all parts of the plant — green as well as non-green, flowers and fruit as well as roots — take part in the process.” (DSB). In his book IngenHousz states: “I am far from thinking that I have discovered the whole of this salutary operation of the vegetable kingdom; but I cannot but flatter myself, that I have at least proceeded a step further than others, and opened a new path for penetrating deeper into this mysterious labyrinth.”
PRIESTLEY: In: Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 62, 1772, pp. 147-264. London: Lockyer Davis, printer to the Royal Society, 1772. Quarto (190x244mm), contemporary (almost certainly original) marbled boards, rebacked (with volume number incorrectly listed as "52" instead of "62" on spine) and re-cornered. The entire volume offered. Complete with 14 engraved folding plates (one for Priestley article). Some mild general toning and scattered foxing. A beautiful copy in boards with extremely large margins and pages uncut and largely unopened.
Provenance: With handsome armorial bookplate noting that this was "The Gift of "Thos. Lewelyn Esq. L.L.D." along with the bookplate of the Bristol Education Society.
INGENHOUSZ: London: P. Elmsly and H. Payne, 1779. Octavo, contemporary tree calf, gilt-decorated spine with red leather title label; text block edges dyed yellow. With one folding plate (showing his experimental apparatus). Early owner signature on title page. Some rubbing to spine edges; mild foxing to title page. A very clean copy with wide margins, elegantly bound in fine tree calf.
Price: $8,700 .