Familiar Letters on Chemistry


My dear Sir,

The source of animal heat, its laws, and the influence it exerts upon the functions of the animal body, constitute a curious and highly interesting subject, to which I would now direct your attention.

All living creatures, whose existence depends upon the absorption of oxygen, possess within themselves a source of heat, independent of surrounding objects.

This general truth applies to all animals, and extends to the seed of plants in the act of germination, to flower-buds when developing, and fruits during their maturation.

In the animal body, heat is produced only in those parts to which arterial blood, and with it the oxygen absorbed in respiration, is conveyed. Hair, wool, and feathers, receive no arterial blood, and, therefore, in them no heat is developed. The combination of a combustible substance with oxygen is, under all circumstances, the only source of animal heat. In whatever way carbon may combine with oxygen, the act of combination is accompanied by the disengagement of heat. It is indifferent whether this combination takes place rapidly or slowly, at a high or at a low temperature: the amount of heat liberated is a constant quantity.

The carbon of the food, being converted into carbonic acid within the body, must give out exactly as much heat as if it had been directly burnt in oxygen gas or in common air; the only difference is, the production of the heat is diffused over unequal times. In oxygen gas the combustion of carbon is rapid and the heat intense; in atmospheric air it burns slower and for a longer time, the temperature being lower; in the animal body the combination is still more gradual, and the heat is lower in proportion.

It is obvious that the amount of heat liberated must increase or diminish with the quantity of oxygen introduced in equal times by respiration. Those animals, therefore, which respire frequently, and consequently consume much oxygen, possess a higher temperature than others, which, with a body of equal size to be heated, take into the system less oxygen. The temperature of a child (102 deg) is higher than that of an adult (99 1/2 deg). That of birds (104 deg to 105.4 deg) is higher than that of quadrupeds (98 1/2 deg to 100.4 deg) or than that of fishes or amphibia, whose proper temperature is from 2.7 to 3.6 deg higher than that of the medium in which they live. All animals, strictly speaking, are warm-blooded; but in those only which possess lungs is the temperature of the body quite independent of the surrounding medium.

The most trustworthy observations prove that in all climates, in the temperate zones as well as at the equator or the poles, the temperature of the body in man, and in what are commonly called warm-blooded animals, is invariably the same; yet how different are the circumstances under which they live!

The animal body is a heated mass, which bears the same relation to surrounding objects as any other heated mass. It receives heat when the surrounding objects are hotter, it loses heat when they are colder, than itself.

We know that the rapidity of cooling increases with the difference between the temperature of the heated body and that of the surrounding medium; that is, the colder the surrounding medium the shorter the time required for the cooling of the heated body.

How unequal, then, must be the loss of heat in a man at Palermo, where the external temperature is nearly equal to that of the body, and in the polar regions, where the external temperature is from 70 deg to 90 deg lower!

Yet, notwithstanding this extremely unequal loss of heat, experience has shown that the blood of the inhabitant of the arctic circle has a temperature as high as that of the native of the south, who lives in so different a medium.

This fact, when its true significance is perceived, proves that the heat given off to the surrounding medium is restored within the body with great rapidity. This compensation must consequently take place more rapidly in winter than in summer, at the pole than at the equator.

Now, in different climates the quantity of oxygen introduced into the system by respiration, as has been already shown, varies according to the temperature of the external air; the quantity of inspired oxygen increases with the loss of heat by external cooling, and the quantity of carbon or hydrogen necessary to combine with this oxygen must be increased in the same ratio.

It is evident that the supply of the heat lost by cooling is effected by the mutual action of the elements of the food and the inspired oxygen, which combine together. To make use of a familiar, but not on that account a less just illustration, the animal body acts, in this respect, as a furnace, which we supply with fuel. It signifies nothing what intermediate forms food may assume, what changes it may undergo in the body; the last change is uniformly the conversion of its carbon into carbonic acid, and of its hydrogen into water. The unassimilated nitrogen of the food, along with the unburned or unoxidised carbon, is expelled in the urine or in the solid excrements. In order to keep up in the furnace a constant temperature, we must vary the supply of fuel according to the external temperature, that is, according to the supply of oxygen.

In the animal body the food is the fuel; with a proper supply of oxygen we obtain the heat given out during its oxidation or combustion. In winter, when we take exercise in a cold atmosphere, and when consequently the amount of inspired oxygen increases, the necessity for food containing carbon and hydrogen increases in the same ratio; and by gratifying the appetite thus excited, we obtain the most efficient protection against the most piercing cold. A starving man is soon frozen to death. The animals of prey in the arctic regions, as every one knows, far exceed in voracity those of the torrid zone.

In cold and temperate climates, the air, which incessantly strives to consume the body, urges man to laborious efforts in order to furnish the means of resistance to its action, while, in hot climates, the necessity of labour to provide food is far less urgent.

Our clothing is merely an equivalent for a certain amount of food. The more warmly we are clothed the less urgent becomes the appetite for food, because the loss of heat by cooling, and consequently the amount of heat to be supplied by the food, is diminished.

If we were to go naked, like certain savage tribes, or if in hunting or fishing we were exposed to the same degree of cold as the Samoyedes, we should be able with ease to consume 10 lbs. of flesh, and perhaps a dozen of tallow candles into the bargain, daily, as warmly clad travellers have related with astonishment of these people. We should then also be able to take the same quantity of brandy or train oil without bad effects, because the carbon and hydrogen of these substances would only suffice to keep up the equilibrium between the external temperature and that of our bodies.

According to the preceding expositions, the quantity of food is regulated by the number of respirations, by the temperature of the air, and by the amount of heat given off to the surrounding medium.

No isolated fact, apparently opposed to this statement, can affect the truth of this natural law. Without temporary or permanent injury to health, the Neapolitan cannot take more carbon and hydrogen in the shape of food than he expires as carbonic acid and water; and the Esquimaux cannot expire more carbon and hydrogen than he takes in the system as food, unless in a state of disease or of starvation. Let us examine these states a little more closely.

The Englishman in Jamaica perceives with regret the disappearance of his appetite, previously a source of frequently recurring enjoyment; and he succeeds, by the use of cayenne pepper, and the most powerful stimulants, in enabling himself to take as much food as he was accustomed to eat at home. But the whole of the carbon thus introduced into the system is not consumed; the temperature of the air is too high, and the oppressive heat does not allow him to increase the number of respirations by active exercise, and thus to proportion the waste to the amount of food taken; disease of some kind, therefore, ensues.

On the other hand, England sends her sick to southern regions, where the amount of the oxygen inspired is diminished in a very large proportion. Those whose diseased digestive organs have in a greater or less degree lost the power of bringing the food into the state best adapted for oxidation, and therefore are less able to resist the oxidising influence of the atmosphere of their native climate, obtain a great improvement in health. The diseased organs of digestion have power to place the diminished amount of food in equilibrium with the inspired oxygen, in the mild climate; whilst in a colder region the organs of respiration themselves would have been consumed in furnishing the necessary resistance to the action of the atmospheric oxygen.

In our climate, hepatic diseases, or those arising from excess of carbon, prevail in summer; in winter, pulmonary diseases, or those arising from excess of oxygen, are more frequent.

The cooling of the body, by whatever cause it may be produced, increases the amount of food necessary. The mere exposure to the open air, in a carriage or on the deck of a ship, by increasing radiation and vaporisation, increases the loss of heat, and compels us to eat more than usual. The same is true of those who are accustomed to drink large quantities of cold water, which is given off at the temperature of the body, 98 1/2 deg. It increases the appetite, and persons of weak constitution find it necessary, by continued exercise, to supply to the system the oxygen required to restore the heat abstracted by the cold water. Loud and long continued speaking, the crying of infants, moist air, all exert a decided and appreciable influence on the amount of food which is taken.

We have assumed that carbon and hydrogen especially, by combining with oxygen, serve to produce animal heat. In fact, observation proves that the hydrogen of the food plays a no less important part than the carbon.

The whole process of respiration appears most clearly developed, when we consider the state of a man, or other animal, totally deprived of food.

The first effect of starvation is the disappearance of fat, and this fat cannot be traced either in the urine or in the scanty faeces. Its carbon and hydrogen have been given off through the skin and lungs in the form of oxidised products; it is obvious that they have served to support respiration.

In the case of a starving man, 32 1/2 oz. of oxygen enter the system daily, and are given out again in combination with a part of his body. Currie mentions the case of an individual who was unable to swallow, and whose body lost 100 lbs. in weight during a month; and, according to Martell (Trans. Linn. Soc., vol. xi. p.411), a fat pig, overwhelmed in a slip of earth, lived 160 days without food, and was found to have diminished in weight, in that time, more than 120 lbs. The whole history of hybernating animals, and the well-established facts of the periodical accumulation, in various animals, of fat, which, at other periods, entirely disappears, prove that the oxygen, in the respiratory process, consumes, without exception, all such substances as are capable of entering into combination with it. It combines with whatever is presented to it; and the deficiency of hydrogen is the only reason why carbonic acid is the chief product; for, at the temperature of the body, the affinity of hydrogen for oxygen far surpasses that of carbon for the same element.

We know, in fact, that the graminivora expire a volume of carbonic acid equal to that of the oxygen inspired, while the carnivora, the only class of animals whose food contains fat, inspire more oxygen than is equal in volume to the carbonic acid expired. Exact experiments have shown, that in many cases only half the volume of oxygen is expired in the form of carbonic acid. These observations cannot be gainsaid, and are far more convincing than those arbitrary and artificially produced phenomena, sometimes called experiments; experiments which, made as too often they are, without regard to the necessary and natural conditions, possess no value, and may be entirely dispensed with; especially when, as in the present case, Nature affords the opportunity for observation, and when we make a rational use of that opportunity.

In the progress of starvation, however, it is not only the fat which disappears, but also, by degrees all such of the solids as are capable of being dissolved. In the wasted bodies of those who have suffered starvation, the muscles are shrunk and unnaturally soft, and have lost their contractibility; all those parts of the body which were capable of entering into the state of motion have served to protect the remainder of the frame from the destructive influence of the atmosphere. Towards the end, the particles of the brain begin to undergo the process of oxidation, and delirium, mania, and death close the scene; that is to say, all resistance to the oxidising power of the atmospheric oxygen ceases, and the chemical process of eremacausis, or decay, commences, in which every part of the body, the bones excepted, enters into combination with oxygen.

The time which is required to cause death by starvation depends on the amount of fat in the body, on the degree of exercise, as in labour or exertion of any kind, on the temperature of the air, and finally, on the presence or absence of water. Through the skin and lungs there escapes a certain quantity of water, and as the presence of water is essential to the continuance of the vital motions, its dissipation hastens death. Cases have occurred, in which a full supply of water being accessible to the sufferer, death has not occurred till after the lapse of twenty days. In one case, life was sustained in this way for the period of sixty days.

In all chronic diseases death is produced by the same cause, namely, the chemical action of the atmosphere. When those substances are wanting, whose function in the organism is to support the process of respiration, when the diseased organs are incapable of performing their proper function of producing these substances, when they have lost the power of transforming the food into that shape in which it may, by entering into combination with the oxygen of the air, protect the system from its influence, then, the substance of the organs themselves, the fat of the body, the substance of the muscles, the nerves, and the brain, are unavoidably consumed.

The true cause of death in these cases is the respiratory process, that is, the action of the atmosphere.

A deficiency of food, and a want of power to convert the food into a part of the organism, are both, equally, a want of resistance; and this is the negative cause of the cessation of the vital process. The flame is extinguished, because the oil is consumed; and it is the oxygen of the air which has consumed it.

In many diseases substances are produced which are incapable of assimilation. By the mere deprivation of food, these substances are removed from the body without leaving a trace behind; their elements have entered into combination with the oxygen of the air.

From the first moment that the function of the lungs or of the skin is interrupted or disturbed, compounds, rich in carbon, appear in the urine, which acquires a brown colour. Over the whole surface of the body oxygen is absorbed, and combines with all the substances which offer no resistance to it. In those parts of the body where the access of oxygen is impeded; for example, in the arm-pits, or in the soles of the feet, peculiar compounds are given out, recognisable by their appearance, or by their odour. These compounds contain much carbon.

Respiration is the falling weight—the bent spring, which keeps the clock in motion; the inspirations and expirations are the strokes of the pendulum which regulate it. In our ordinary time-pieces, we know with mathematical accuracy the effect produced on their rate of going, by changes in the length of the pendulum, or in the external temperature. Few, however, have a clear conception of the influence of air and temperature on the health of the human body; and yet the research into the conditions necessary to keep it in the normal state is not more difficult than in the case of a clock.

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