|Born||2 February 1802
|Died||11 May 1887
|Institutions||Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers|
Jean-Baptiste Joseph Dieudonné Boussingault (2 February 1802 – 11 May 1887) was a French chemist who made significant contributions to agricultural science, petroleum science and metallurgy.
Jean-Baptiste Boussingault - an agricultural scientist and chemist of importance - was born in Paris. After studying at the school of mines at Saint-Etienne he went to Alsace to work in the asphalt mines - a two year interlude that was to shape his contributions to science. Then, little more than twenty years old,he went to South America as a mining engineer on behalf of an English company. During the insurrection of the Spanish colonies he was attached to the staff of General Bolivar and traveled widely in the northern parts of the continent, climbing to a new highest altitude by a Western explorer on Chimborazo in the process. Contrary to earlier Encyclopædia Britannica entries, his greatest contributions were in biological and related applied fields.
Returning to France he married Adele Le Bel whose family had the concession to the asphalt mines where he had previously worked and it was in this period that he made his greatest discoveries. Later he became professor of chemistry at Lyon, and in 1839 was appointed to the chair of agricultural and analytical chemistry at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris. In 1848 he was elected to the National Assembly representing his adopted Alsace, where he sat as a Moderate republican. Three years later he was dismissed from his professorship on account of his political opinions, but so much resentment at this action was shown by scientific men in general, and especially by his colleagues, who threatened to resign in a body, that he was reinstated. He died in Paris.
His first papers were concerned with agricultural and mining topics, and his sojourn in South America yielded a number of miscellaneous memoirs, on the cause of goitre in the Cordilleras, the gases of volcanoes, earthquakes, tropical rain, &c., which won the commendation of Alexander von Humboldt. From 1836 he devoted himself mainly to agricultural chemistry and animal and vegetable physiology, with occasional excursions into mineral chemistry. His work included papers on the quantity of nitrogen in different foods, the amount of gluten in different wheats, investigations on the question whether plants can assimilate free nitrogen from the atmosphere (which he answered in the negative and propose the basis of what became known as the nitrogen cycle), the respiration of plants, the function of their leaves, the action and value of manures and chemical fertilizers, and other similar subjects. In 1839, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Through his wife Adele Le Bel he had a share in an estate at Pechelbronn in Alsace, where he carried out many agricultural experiments on what is considered to be the first agricultural experimental station (as defined in terms of scientific experimentation on a field basis). He collaborated with Jean Baptiste Dumas in writing an Essai de statique chimique des ltres organists (1841), and was the author of Traite d'economie rurale (1844), which was remodelled as Agronomie, chimie agricole, et physiologie (5 vols., 1860–1874; 2nd ed., 1884), and of Etudes sur la transformation du fer en acier (1875).
Boussingault and agricultural science
Boussingault was an outstanding personage in agricultural science, conducting the world’s first agricultural experimental station and making a series of discoveries that were to become the foundation of the modern agriculture that feeds us all.
First agricultural experiment station
Boussingault established the first Agricultural Experiment Station on his wife’s property in Pechelbronn in Alsace, France some 60 km north of Strasbourg, France in 1836. Rothamsted in the UK, generally considered the longest continuous experimental station was started some seven years later in 1843, and the German equivalent in Moeckern in 1852. As he was a chemist, which was at that time a rapidly expanding field, and as the application of such science to agriculture was overdue, it is logical that many of Boussingault’s contributions from his work related to soil chemical and plant nutritional knowledge.
His experimental station did not survive him, or rather could not withstand the vacillations of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war despite some revealing respect for intellectual works in WWII anecdotes, but his discoveries were built on by others, including his better known contemporary, Liebig – who loudly acknowledged Boussingault as the pioneer and great discover of many advances in soil and plant chemistry.
The site of his, the world’s first agricultural experimental station, is today a grand Alsatian grange and outbuilding complex in north-eastern France in urgent need of restoration (see photo). As of April 2011, an explanatory panel explaining his work has been erected (see photo) correcting some earlier misunderstanding that his experimental work was conducted at another site in the town of Pechelbronn where he maintained a house. The confusion is understandable as the history of the area is dominated by the petroleum technologies developed in that industry, and to which Boussingault contributed as part of his employment in the region. The shadow cast over his work by this more popular subject has led to his status being neglected beyond a cadre of informed scientists and scientific historians.
Boussingault re-introduced the quantitative methods first employed by de Saussure and is credited with the following main discoveries related to agriculture, as well as others in fields of petroleum and metallurgy. In agriculture, discoveries include:
- the first analysis of crops grown in a rotation
- the increase in soil nitrogen following the growth of legume crops
- the theory (later confirmed by Persoz) that the carbohydrate fraction of a food ration is metabolized to fat in herbivores
- plant growth is proportional to the amount of available assimilatory nitrogen, which in practical terms allows greater plant growth from the simultaneous application of phosphorus and nitrogen
- definition of the photosynthetic quotient.
More about Boussingault and agriculture
The Petroleum Museum of Pechelbronn contains only two notes about Boussingault (see photo, courtesy of the Museum), but among its volunteers is a knowledgeable researcher M. Daniel Rodier who maintains archives of all available information about Boussingault, and who has overseen the historic markers at the experimental farm site. McCosh’s book remains the most comprehensive source in English, while Aulie’s Ph.D. thesis from Yale University is the most authoritative on the subject of Boussingault’s nitrogen cycle. A new three-volume series (in French) entitled ‘Les pionniers de l' or noir de Pechelbronn’ by Jean-Claude Streicher is in the process of preparation covering the scientific developments in the region; Boussingault is probably to be a major subject in Volume 3.
Today’s tribute to Boussingault
Great scientists are sometimes remembered for their less significant discoveries. In the case of Boussingault, most popular literature lists him as a contributor to the petroleum development of Alsace, and as one of the few outsiders marrying into the industrialist Le Bel family that they accepted in the long term. The mineral Boussingaultite is named after him.
However, it is today possible to place Boussingault in a cyclical context as befits his contributions to our knowledge of ecological cycles. For it was his early conjectures, while working on both petroleum and farming problems, that led to an understanding of the critical role of nitrogen in plant growth and thereby gave the necessary fillip to agricultural production that has forestalled major food shortages up to the present day. It therefore seems fitting that the harnessing of essential nitrogen from the atmosphere into a chemical form accessible to plants is today a major product of the petroleum industry through the Haber-Bosch process. From a petroleum researcher came essential knowledge for agriculture, which today is supported by a nitrogen fertilizer product unforeseeable in Boussingault’s day from the modern petroleum industry, urea and its ammonium relatives. We eat today from the science that has built on the theoretical insights and experimentation of Boussingault.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Media related to Jean-Baptiste Boussingault at Wikimedia Commons