Contribution of Early Researchers to the History
of Photosynthesis Revisited

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This is a partial account of the history of photosynthesis. It covers the period from 1648 when Johann Baptista van Helmont's Ortus Medicinae was published until about 1900 when the issue on the use of the term ‘photosynthesis’ finally subsided. The telling is done by way of revisiting the works of selected contributors.

The researchers herein listed comprise only of a small fraction of the totality of contributors to the history of photosynthesis. Nonetheless, their inclusion and sequencing are intended to portray primarily that the development of photosynthesis was not spontaneous; that the discovery of photosynthesis was an offshoot of investigations seeking to shed light on the Humus Theory; that photosynthesis occurs in plants in the presence of light; that photosynthesis in plants requires carbon dioxide and water as reactants and produces oxygen and organic matter; and that the use of the term ‘photosynthesis’ is apt and beyond dispute.

At the inception of the scientific investigation which finally proved the existence of photosynthesis, the prevailing belief was in favor of the Humus Theory. This theory postulated that plants are soil-eaters or they obtain their food directly from the soil (Devlin 1975; Hopkins 1999). How this theory was disproved and how the basic processes of photosynthesis were established took centuries of meticulous hard work.

The making of the history of photosynthesis involved personalities belonging to different nationalities and professions. In developing this paper, a starter list of the various researchers who made significant contribution in understanding photosynthesis was obtained mainly from Devlin (1975), Hopkins (1999), and Moore et al. (2003). Finally, the list below which, except for Charles Barnes and Conway MacMillan, consists of researchers in the sense that their contributions are products of experimental studies. To read a short description of their respective works or contribution, click the link.

Partial list of persons who made significant contributions to the history of photosynthesis:

1. Johann Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644)

2. John Woodward (1665-1728)

3. Stephen Hales (1677-1761)

4. Charles Bonnet (1720–1793)

5. Joseph Black (1728–1799).

6. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)

7. Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799)

8. Jean Sénébier (1742-1809)

9. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794)

10. Nicolas Thiodore de Saussure (1767-1845)

11. Pierre-Joseph Pelletier (1788-1842), Joseph-Bienaime Caventou (1795–1877) and René-Joachim-Henri Dutrochet (1776–1847)

12. Hugo von Mohl (1805–1872) and Julius Robert von Mayer (1814-1878)

13. Théodor Wilhelm Engelmann (1843 -1909)

14. Julius von Sachs (1832 -1897)

15. Charles Barnes (1858-1910) and Conway MacMillan (1867-1929)

The evolution of the history of photosynthesis did not stop with these men. Researches have continued and are still continuing, and it seems now that man-made or artificial photosynthesis is rapidly becoming a reality.

Photosynthesis became a challenge and still remains so, and proved to become a wealthy cache of distinctions. For their outstanding researches, many have been awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize. Ironically, the researchers whose names appear in the above list made their contributions prior to 1901, the birth of Nobel Prize ( 2012).

For a more comprehensive listing, paticularly in relation to the history of photosynthesis in plants, readers are directed to the literature cited below, notably Discoveries in oxygenic photosynthesis (1727–2003): a perspective by Govindjee and Krogmann (2004).


(includes those cited in the subpages reviewing the contribution of specific researchers to the history of photosynthesis)

AIKMAN CM. 1894. Manures and the Principles of Manuring. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons. Retrieved June 15, 2012 from

BOEDIJN KB. 1968. Plants of the World. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. 312 p.

CARDWELL D. 1995. The Norton History of Technology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 178-180.

COOPER A. 1999. Joseph Black, MD. Retrieved June 19, 2012 from

DEVLIN R. 1975. Plant Physiology. 3rd ed. New York, NY: 600 p.

HOPKINS WG. 1999. Introduction to Plant Physiology. 2nd ed. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 512 p.

DONALDSON IML. 2009. The library copy of van Helmont’s Ortus Medicinae. J R Coll Physicians Edinb. 39:280-1. Retrieved June 20, 2012 from

DOYLE WP. 2011. Joseph Black (1728-1799). Retrieved June 19, 2012 from

EGERTON FN. 2008. A history of the ecological sciences, part 28: plant growth studies during the 1700s. Retrieved June 11, 2012 from

GEST H. 2002. Definition of photosynthesis: History of the word photosynthesis and evolution of its definition. Photosynthesis Research . 73: 7–10. Retrieved June 17, 2012 from Photosynthesis%20Research%2073%207%20-%20History%20of%20phs%20research.pdf.

GOVINDJEE. 2000. Milestones in photosynthesis research. Retrieved June 17, 2012 from

GOVINDJEE, KROGMANN D. 2004. Discoveries in oxygenic photosynthesis (1727–2003): a perspective. Photosynthesis Research. 80: 15–57. Retrieved June 12, 2012 from

HART H. 2005. Brief papers: Nicolas Théodore de Saussure. Retrieved Feb. 10,2012 from

HOPKINS WG. 1999. Introduction to Plant Physiology. 2nd ed. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 512 p.

JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL BOTANY. 1985. Historical sketches 4: CO2-assimilation. J. Expt. Bot. (1985). Vol. 36(4):694-695. Retrieved June 28, 2012 from

JOHNSTON HW. 1976. The biological and economic importance of algae. Part 4: the industrial culturing of algae. Tuatara. Vol. 22, Issue 2, June 1976. Retrieved Feb. 11, 2012 from

LIFE.ILLINOIS.EDU. n.d. Photosynthesis: the power plant and the chemical factory of life. Retrieved June 15, 2012 from

MATTSON.CREIGHTON.EDU. n.d. Joseph Black. Retrieved June 13, 2012 from

MAYNARD LA, LOOSLI JK, HINTZ HF, WARNER RG. 1980, Animal Nutrition. 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. 1-8.

MOORE R, CLARK WD, VODOPICH DS. 2003. Botany. 2nd ed. Boston, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill. 919 p.

MYERS RL. 2007. The 100 most important chemical compounds : a reference guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Retrieved June 12, 2012 from

NICKELSEN K. 2007. From leaves to molecules: botany and the development of photosynthesis research. Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology. Vol. 12. Retrieved June 16, 2012 from

NOBELPRIZE.ORG. 2012. The Nobel Prizes- About. Retrieved June 18, 2012 from

OLDER P. 2007. Some facts and some thoughts on the history of oxygen uptake and its measurement. Retrieved June 12, 2012 from

PRIESTLEY, J. 1774. Experiments and observations on different kinds of air. Retrieved June 12, 2012 from

PURDUE UNIVERSITY. 2011. Barnes, Charles Reid (1858-1910) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections. Retrieved June 17, 2012 from

REDGROVE HS, REDGROVE LML. 1922. Joannes Baptista van Helmont: alchemist, physician and philosopher. London: William Rider & Son, Ltd. Retrieved June 19, 2012 from

ROOK A (ed.). 1964. The Origins and Growth of Biology. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, Ltd. 403 p.

SPOEHR HA. 1926. Photosynthesis. NY: The Chemical Catalog Company, Inc. Retrieved June 20, 2012 from

STAEHELIN LA. 2003. Chloroplast structure: from chlorophyll granules to supra-molecular architecture of thylakoid membranes. Photosynthesis Research. 76:185-196. Retrieved June 18, 2012 from

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN. n.d. Stahl, Georg (1659-1734). In: From Alchemy to Chemistry:Five Hundred Years of Rare and Interesting Books. Retrieved June 9, 2012 from

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA. 2006. Department of Botany Records, 1893-1989. Retrieved June 17, 2012 from;cc=umfa;rgn=main;view=text;didno=uarc00892.

WENT FW, THE EDITORS OF LIFE. 1963. The Plants. New York: Time Inc. 194 p.

WINDELSPECHT M. 2002. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions and Discoveries of the 17th Century. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 270 p.

(Ben G. Bareja. June 2012)

Suggested citation:

BAREJA BG. 2012. The history of photosynthesis: contributions of early researchers. Retrieved <date> from

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