A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter IV
Anatomy and physiology in the eighteenth century
Erasmus Darwin and vegetable physiology
Some interesting experiments regarding vegetable respiration were made just at the close of the century by Erasmus Darwin, and recorded in his Botanic Garden as a foot-note to the verse:

"While spread in air the leaves respiring play."

These notes are worth quoting at some length, as they give a clear idea of the physiological doctrines of the time (1799), while taking advance ground as to the specific matter in question:

"There have been various opinions," Darwin says, "concerning the use of the leaves of plants in the vegetable economy. Some have contended that they are perspiratory organs. This does not seem probable from an experiment of Dr. Hales, Vegetable Statics, p. 30. He, found, by cutting off branches of trees with apples on them and taking off the leaves, that an apple exhaled about as much as two leaves the surfaces of which were nearly equal to the apple; whence it would appear that apples have as good a claim to be termed perspiratory organs as leaves. Others have believed them excretory organs of excrementitious juices, but as the vapor exhaled from vegetables has no taste, this idea is no more probable than the other; add to this that in most weathers they do not appear to perspire or exhale at all.

"The internal surface of the lungs or air-vessels in men is said to be equal to the external surface of the whole body, or almost fifteen square feet; on this surface the blood is exposed to the influence of the respired air through the medium, however, of a thin pellicle; by this exposure to the air it has its color changed from deep red to bright scarlet, and acquires something so necessary to the existence of life that we can live scarcely a minute without this wonderful process.

"The analogy between the leaves of plants and the lungs or gills of animals seems to embrace so many circumstances that we can scarcely withhold our consent to their performing similar offices.

"1. The great surface of leaves compared to that of the trunk and branches of trees is such that it would seem to be an organ well adapted for the purpose of exposing the vegetable juices to the influence of the air; this, however, we shall see afterwards is probably performed only by their upper surfaces, yet even in this case the surface of the leaves in general bear a greater proportion to the surface of the tree than the lungs of animals to their external surfaces.

"2. In the lung of animals the blood, after having been exposed to the air in the extremities of the pulmonary artery, is changed in color from deep red to bright scarlet, and certainly in some of its essential properties it is then collected by the pulmonary vein and returned to the heart. To show a similarity of circumstances in the leaves of plants, the following experiment was made, June 24, 1781. A stalk with leaves and seed-vessels of large spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) had been several days placed in a decoction of madder (Rubia tinctorum) so that the lower part of the stem and two of the undermost leaves were immersed in it. After having washed the immersed leaves in clear water I could readily discover the color of the madder passing along the middle rib of each leaf. The red artery was beautifully visible on the under and on the upper surface of the leaf; but on the upper side many red branches were seen going from it to the extremities of the leaf, which on the other side were not visible except by looking through it against the light. On this under side a system of branching vessels carrying a pale milky fluid were seen coming from the extremities of the leaf, and covering the whole under side of it, and joining two large veins, one on each side of the red artery in the middle rib of the leaf, and along with it descending to the foot-stalk or petiole. On slitting one of these leaves with scissors, and having a magnifying-glass ready, the milky blood was seen oozing out of the returning veins on each side of the red artery in the middle rib, but none of the red fluid from the artery.

"All these appearances were more easily seen in a leaf of Picris treated in the same manner; for in this milky plant the stems and middle rib of the leaves are sometimes naturally colored reddish, and hence the color of the madder seemed to pass farther into the ramifications of their leaf-arteries, and was there beautifully visible with the returning branches of milky veins on each side."

Darwin now goes on to draw an incorrect inference from his observations:

"3. From these experiments," he says, "the upper surface of the leaf appeared to be the immediate organ of respiration, because the colored fluid was carried to the extremities of the leaf by vessels most conspicuous on the upper surface, and there changed into a milky fluid, which is the blood of the plant, and then returned by concomitant veins on the under surface, which were seen to ooze when divided with scissors, and which, in Picris, particularly, render the under surface of the leaves greatly whiter than the upper one."

But in point of fact, as studies of a later generation were to show, it is the under surface of the leaf that is most abundantly provided with stomata, or "breathing-pores." From the stand-point of this later knowledge, it is of interest to follow our author a little farther, to illustrate yet more fully the possibility of combining correct observations with a faulty inference.

"4. As the upper surface of leaves constitutes the organ of respiration, on which the sap is exposed in the termination of arteries beneath a thin pellicle to the action of the atmosphere, these surfaces in many plants strongly repel moisture, as cabbage leaves, whence the particles of rain lying over their surfaces without touching them, as observed by Mr. Melville (Essays Literary and Philosophical: Edinburgh), have the appearance of globules of quicksilver. And hence leaves with the upper surfaces on water wither as soon as in the dry air, but continue green for many days if placed with the under surface on water, as appears in the experiments of Monsieur Bonnet (Usage des Feuilles). Hence some aquatic plants, as the water-lily (Nymphoea), have the lower sides floating on the water, while the upper surfaces remain dry in the air.

"5. As those insects which have many spiracula, or breathing apertures, as wasps and flies, are immediately suffocated by pouring oil upon them, I carefully covered with oil the surfaces of several leaves of phlomis, of Portugal laurel, and balsams, and though it would not regularly adhere, I found them all die in a day or two.

"It must be added that many leaves are furnished with muscles about their foot-stalks, to turn their surfaces to the air or light, as mimosa or Hedysarum gyrans. From all these analogies I think there can be no doubt but that leaves of trees are their lungs, giving out a phlogistic material to the atmosphere, and absorbing oxygen, or vital air.

"6. The great use of light to vegetation would appear from this theory to be by disengaging vital air from the water which they perspire, and thence to facilitate its union with their blood exposed beneath the thin surface of their leaves; since when pure air is thus applied it is probable that it can be more readily absorbed. Hence, in the curious experiments of Dr. Priestley and Mr. Ingenhouz, some plants purified less air than others - that is, they perspired less in the sunshine; and Mr. Scheele found that by putting peas into water which about half covered them they converted the vital air into fixed air, or carbonic-acid gas, in the same manner as in animal respiration.

"7. The circulation in the lungs or leaves of plants is very similar to that of fish. In fish the blood, after having passed through their gills, does not return to the heart as from the lungs of air-breathing animals, but the pulmonary vein taking the structure of an artery after having received the blood from the gills, which there gains a more florid color, distributes it to the other parts of their bodies. The same structure occurs in the livers of fish, whence we see in those animals two circulations independent of the power of the heart - viz., that beginning at the termination of the veins of the gills and branching through the muscles, and that which passes through the liver; both which are carried on by the action of those respective arteries and veins."[6]

Darwin is here a trifle fanciful in forcing the analogy between plants and animals. The circulatory system of plants is really not quite so elaborately comparable to that of fishes as he supposed. But the all-important idea of the uniformity underlying the seeming diversity of Nature is here exemplified, as elsewhere in the writings of Erasmus Darwin; and, more specifically, a clear grasp of the essentials of the function of respiration is fully demonstrated.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.