Familiar Letters on Chemistry


My dear Sir,

Having attempted in my last letter to explain to you the simple and admirable office subserved by the oxygen of the atmosphere in its combination with carbon in the animal body, I will now proceed to present you with some remarks upon those materials which sustain its mechanisms in motion, and keep up their various functions,—namely, the Aliments.

If the increase in mass in an animal body, the development and reproduction of its organs depend upon the blood, then those substances only which are capable of being converted into blood can be properly regarded as nourishment. In order then to ascertain what parts of our food are nutritious, we must compare the composition of the blood with the composition of the various articles taken as food.

Two substances require especial consideration as the chief ingredients of the blood; one of these separates immediately from the blood when it is withdrawn from the circulation.

It is well known that in this case blood coagulates, and separates into a yellowish liquid, the serum of the blood, and a gelatinous mass, which adheres to a rod or stick in soft, elastic fibres, when coagulating blood is briskly stirred. This is the fibrine of the blood, which is identical in all its properties with muscular fibre, when the latter is purified from all foreign matters.

The second principal ingredient of the blood is contained in the serum, and gives to this liquid all the properties of the white of eggs, with which it is indeed identical. When heated, it coagulates into a white elastic mass, and the coagulating substance is called albumen.

Fibrine and albumen, the chief ingredients of blood, contain, in all, seven chemical elements, among which nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur are found. They contain also the earth of bones. The serum retains in solution sea salt and other salts of potash and soda, in which the acids are carbonic, phosphoric, and sulphuric acids. The globules of the blood contain fibrine and albumen, along with a red colouring matter, in which iron is a constant element. Besides these, the blood contains certain fatty bodies in small quantity, which differ from ordinary fats in several of their properties.

Chemical analysis has led to the remarkable result, that fibrine and albumen contain the same organic elements united in the same proportion,—i.e., that they are isomeric, their chemical composition—the proportion of their ultimate elements—being identical. But the difference of their external properties shows that the particles of which they are composed are arranged in a different order. (See Letter V).

This conclusion has lately been beautifully confirmed by a distinguished physiologist (Denis), who has succeeded in converting fibrine into albumen, that is, in giving it the solubility, and coagulability by heat, which characterise the white of egg.

Fibrine and albumen, besides having the same composition, agree also in this, that both dissolve in concentrated muriatic acid, yielding a solution of an intense purple colour. This solution, whether made with fibrine or albumen, has the very same re-actions with all substances yet tried.

Both albumen and fibrine, in the process of nutrition, are capable of being converted into muscular fibre, and muscular fibre is capable of being reconverted into blood. These facts have long been established by physiologists, and chemistry has merely proved that these metamorphoses can be accomplished under the influence of a certain force, without the aid of a third substance, or of its elements, and without the addition of any foreign element, or the separation of any element previously present in these substances.

If we now compare the composition of all organised parts with that of fibrine and albumen, the following relations present themselves:—

All parts of the animal body which have a decided shape, which form parts of organs, contain nitrogen. No part of an organ which possesses motion and life is destitute of nitrogen; all of them contain likewise carbon and the elements of water; the latter, however, in no case in the proportion to form water.

The chief ingredients of the blood contain nearly 17 per cent. of nitrogen, and from numerous analyses it appears that no part of an organ contains less than 17 per cent. of nitrogen.

The most convincing experiments and observations have proved that the animal body is absolutely incapable of producing an elementary body, such as carbon or nitrogen, out of substances which do not contain it; and it obviously follows, that all kinds of food fit for the production either of blood, or of cellular tissue, membranes, skin, hair, muscular fibre, &c., must contain a certain amount of nitrogen, because that element is essential to the composition of the above-named organs; because the organs cannot create it from the other elements presented to them; and, finally, because no nitrogen is absorbed from the atmosphere in the vital process.

The substance of the brain and nerves contains a large quantity of albumen, and, in addition to this, two peculiar fatty acids, distinguished from other fats by containing phosphorus (phosphoric acid?). One of these contains nitrogen (Fremy).

Finally, water and common fat are those ingredients of the body which are destitute of nitrogen. Both are amorphous or unorganised, and only so far take part in the vital process as that their presence is required for the due performance of the vital functions. The inorganic constituents of the body are, iron, lime, magnesia, common salt, and the alkalies.

The nutritive process is seen in its simplest form in carnivorous animals. This class of animals lives on the blood and flesh of the graminivora; but this blood and flesh are, in all their properties, identical with their own. Neither chemical nor physiological differences can be discovered.

The nutriment of carnivorous animals is derived originally from blood; in their stomach it becomes dissolved, and capable of reaching all other parts of the body; in its passage it is again converted into blood, and from this blood are reproduced all those parts of their organisation which have undergone change or metamorphosis.

With the exception of hoofs, hair, feathers, and the earth of bones, every part of the food of carnivorous animals is capable of assimilation.

In a chemical sense, therefore, it may be said that a carnivorous animal, in supporting the vital process, consumes itself. That which serves for its nutrition is identical with those parts of its organisation which are to be renewed.

The process of nutrition in graminivorous animals appears at first sight altogether different. Their digestive organs are less simple, and their food consists of vegetables, the great mass of which contains but little nitrogen.

From what substances, it may be asked, is the blood formed, by means of which of their organs are developed? This question may be answered with certainty.

Chemical researches have shown, that all such parts of vegetables as can afford nutriment to animals contain certain constituents which are rich in nitrogen; and the most ordinary experience proves that animals require for their support and nutrition less of these parts of plants in proportion as they abound in the nitrogenised constituents. Animals cannot be fed on matters destitute of these nitrogenised constituents.

These important products of vegetation are especially abundant in the seeds of the different kinds of grain, and of peas, beans, and lentils; in the roots and the juices of what are commonly called vegetables. They exist, however, in all plants, without exception, and in every part of plants in larger or smaller quantity.

These nitrogenised forms of nutriment in the vegetable kingdom may be reduced to three substances, which are easily distinguished by their external characters. Two of them are soluble in water, the third is insoluble.

When the newly-expressed juices of vegetables are allowed to stand, a separation takes place in a few minutes. A gelatinous precipitate, commonly of a green tinge, is deposited, and this, when acted on by liquids which remove the colouring matter, leaves a grayish white substance, well known to druggists as the deposite from vegetable juices. This is one of the nitrogenised compounds which serves for the nutrition of animals, and has been named vegetable fibrine. The juice of grapes is especially rich in this constituent, but it is most abundant in the seeds of wheat, and of the cerealia generally. It may be obtained from wheat flour by a mechanical operation, and in a state of tolerable purity; it is then called gluten, but the glutinous property belongs, not to vegetable fibrine, but to a foreign substance, present in small quantity, which is not found in the other cerealia.

The method by which it is obtained sufficiently proves that it is insoluble in water; although we cannot doubt that it was originally dissolved in the vegetable juice, from which it afterwards separated, exactly as fibrine does from blood.

The second nitrogenised compound remains dissolved in the juice after the separation of the fibrine. It does not separate from the juice at the ordinary temperature, but is instantly coagulated when the liquid containing it is heated to the boiling point.

When the clarified juice of nutritious vegetables, such as cauliflower, asparagus, mangelwurzel, or turnips, is made to boil, a coagulum is formed, which it is absolutely impossible to distinguish from the substance which separates as a coagulum, when the serum of blood, or the white of an egg, diluted with water, are heated to the boiling point. This is vegetable albumen. It is found in the greatest abundance in certain seeds, in nuts, almonds, and others, in which the starch of the gramineae is replaced by oil.

The third nitrogenised constituent of the vegetable food of animals is vegetable caseine. It is chiefly found in the seeds of peas, beans, lentils, and similar leguminous seeds. Like vegetable albumen, it is soluble in water, but differs from it in this, that its solution is not coagulated by heat. When the solution is heated or evaporated, a skin forms on its surface, and the addition of an acid causes a coagulum, just as in animal milk.

These three nitrogenised compounds, vegetable fibrine, albumen, and caseine, are the true nitrogenised constituents of the food of graminivorous animals; all other nitrogenised compounds occurring in plants, are either rejected by animals, as in the case of the characteristic principles of poisonous and medicinal plants, or else they occur in the food in such very small proportion, that they cannot possibly contribute to the increase of mass in the animal body.

The chemical analysis of these three substances has led to the very interesting result that they contain the same organic elements, united in the same proportion by weight; and, what is still more remarkable, that they are identical in composition with the chief constituents of blood, animal fibrine, and albumen. They all three dissolve in concentrated muriatic acid with the same deep purple colour, and even in their physical characters, animal fibrine and albumen are in no respect different from vegetable fibrine and albumen. It is especially to be noticed, that by the phrase, identity of composition, we do not here intend mere similarity, but that even in regard to the presence and relative amount of sulphur, phosphorus, and phosphate of lime, no difference can be observed.

How beautifully and admirably simple, with the aid of these discoveries, appears the process of nutrition in animals, the formation of their organs, in which vitality chiefly resides! Those vegetable principles, which in animals are used to form blood, contain the chief constituents of blood, fibrine and albumen, ready formed, as far as regards their composition. All plants, besides, contain a certain quantity of iron, which reappears in the colouring matter of the blood. Vegetable fibrine and animal fibrine, vegetable albumen and animal albumen, hardly differ, even in form; if these principles be wanting in the food, the nutrition of the animal is arrested; and when they are present, the graminivorous animal obtains in its food the very same principles on the presence of which the nutrition of the carnivora entirely depends.

Vegetables produce in their organism the blood of all animals, for the carnivora, in consuming the blood and flesh of the graminivora, consume, strictly speaking, only the vegetable principles which have served for the nutrition of the latter. Vegetable fibrine and albumen take the form in the stomach of the graminivorous animal as animal fibrine and albumen do in that of the carnivorous animal.

From what has been said, it follows that the development of the animal organism and its growth are dependent on the reception of certain principles identical with the chief constituents of blood.

In this sense we may say that the animal organism gives to the blood only its form; that it is incapable of creating blood out of other substances which do not already contain the chief constituents of that fluid. We cannot, indeed, maintain that the animal organism has no power to form other compounds, for we know that it is capable of producing an extensive series of compounds, differing in composition from the chief constituents of blood; but these last, which form the starting-point of the series, it cannot produce.

The animal organism is a higher kind of vegetable, the development of which begins with those substances with the production of which the life of an ordinary vegetable ends. As soon as the latter has borne seed, it dies, or a period of its life comes to a termination.

In that endless series of compounds, which begins with carbonic acid, ammonia, and water, the sources of the nutrition of vegetables, and includes the most complex constituents of the animal brain, there is no blank, no interruption. The first substance capable of affording nutriment to animals is the last product of the creative energy of vegetables.

The substance of cellular tissue and of membranes, of the brain and nerves, these the vegetable cannot produce.

The seemingly miraculous in the productive agency of vegetables disappears in a great degree, when we reflect that the production of the constituents of blood cannot appear more surprising than the occurrence of the fat of beef and mutton in cocoa beans, of human fat in olive-oil, of the principal ingredient of butter in palm-oil, and of horse fat and train-oil in certain oily seeds.

1 of 2
2 of 2