Friday’s Google Doodle honors the 287th birthday of Jan Ingenhousz, a Dutch physician and biologist who changed forever our understanding of plants with his discovery of photosynthesis. But that’s just the biggest highlight of Ingenhousz’s remarkable story, which saw him rub elbows with some of the most famous people of the 18th century and save countless lives.
Ingenhousz set himself on the road for Google Doodle immortality in the 1770s, when a visit to the home of oxygen discoverer Joseph Priestley sparked an interest in the latter’s finding that plants absorb and process gases. In 1779, Ingenhousz demonstrated plants give off oxygen in the presence of light but don’t do so when it’s dark — instead, they gave off carbon dioxide. With that, he had figured out the basics of photosynthesis, establishing what is pretty much the core lesson of high school biology classes centuries later.
While we still know Ingenhousz’s name more than 200 years after his death because of this discovery that plants have their own version of breathing, he had already made arguably his most profound contribution to humanity decades before he started working on what we now know as photosynthesis.
Originally trained as a physician, Ingenhousz made his name with his work on inoculation, the forerunner of vaccination. He left his native Netherlands for England in his mid-30s with the goal of learning the most cutting-edge inoculation techniques, and his work in London paid off when he saved 700 people in nearby Hertfordshire from a smallpox outbreak.
That work helped bring him to the attention of Austrian Empress Maria Teresa, who took him on as court physician after he traveled to Vienna to inoculate the imperial family. His travels throughout Europe brought him into contact not just with empresses and oxygen discoverers, but also the likes of Benjamin Franklin, who traveled with Ingenhousz for a period before the American Revolution.
Ingenhousz beat out several other December 8 birthday luminaries for the Google Doodle honor, including the Roman poet Horace, Mary Queen of Scots, cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, innovative early filmmaker Georges Méliès, MMexican painter Diego Rivera, pioneering Ukrainian computer scientist Kateryna Yushchenko, and reigning WWE Cruiserweight Champion Enzo Amore, all of whom are equally deserving of such an honor.
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