Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter XIV.

Of the Putrefactive Fermentation.

The phenomena of putrefaction are caused, like those of vinous fermentation, by the operation of very complicated affinities. The constituent elements of the bodies submitted to this process cease to continue in equilibrium in the threefold combination, and form themselves anew into binary combinations27, or compounds, consisting of two elements only; but these are entirely different from the results produced by the vinous fermentation. Instead of one part of the hydrogen remaining united with part of the water and charcoal to form alkohol, as in the vinous fermentation, the whole of the hydrogen is dissipated, during putrefaction, in the form of hydrogen gas, whilst, at the same time, the oxygen and charcoal, uniting with caloric, escape in the form of carbonic acid gas; so that, when the whole process is finished, especially if the materials have been mixed with a sufficient quantity of water, nothing remains but the earth of the vegetable mixed with a small portion of charcoal and iron. Thus putrefaction is nothing more than a complete analysis of vegetable substance, during which the whole of the constituent elements is disengaged in form of gas, except the earth, which remains in the state of mould28.

Such is the result of putrefaction when the substances submitted to it contain only oxygen, hydrogen, charcoal and a little earth. But this case is rare, and these substances putrify imperfectly and with difficulty, and require a considerable time to complete their putrefaction. It is otherwise with substances containing azote, which indeed exists in all animal matters, and even in a considerable number of vegetable substances. This additional element is remarkably favourable to putrefaction; and for this reason animal matter is mixed with vegetable, when the putrefaction of these is wished to be hastened. The whole art of forming composts and dunghills, for the purposes of agriculture, consists in the proper application of this admixture.

The addition of azote to the materials of putrefaction not only accelerates the process, that element likewise combines with part of the hydrogen, and forms a new substance called volatile alkali or ammoniac. The results obtained by analysing animal matters, by different processes, leave no room for doubt with regard to the constituent elements of ammoniac; whenever the azote has been previously separated from these substances, no ammoniac is produced; and in all cases they furnish ammoniac only in proportion to the azote they contain. This composition of ammoniac is likewise fully proved by Mr Berthollet, in the Memoirs of the Academy for 1785, p. 316. where he gives a variety of analytical processes by which ammoniac is decomposed, and its two elements, azote and hydrogen, procured separately.

I already mentioned in Chap. X. that almost all combustible bodies were capable of combining with each other; hydrogen gas possesses this quality in an eminent degree, it dissolves charcoal, sulphur, and phosphorus, producing the compounds named carbonated hydrogen gas, sulphurated hydrogen gas, and phosphorated hydrogen gas. The two latter of these gasses have a peculiarly disagreeable flavour; the sulphurated hydrogen gas has a strong resemblance to the smell of rotten eggs, and the phosphorated smells exactly like putrid fish. Ammoniac has likewise a peculiar odour, not less penetrating, or less disagreeable, than these other gasses. From the mixture of these different flavours proceeds the fetor which accompanies the putrefaction of animal substances. Sometimes ammoniac predominates, which is easily perceived by its sharpness upon the eyes; sometimes, as in feculent matters, the sulphurated gas is most prevalent; and sometimes, as in putrid herrings, the phosphorated hydrogen gas is most abundant.

I long supposed that nothing could derange or interrupt the course of putrefaction; but Mr Fourcroy and Mr Thouret have observed some peculiar phenomena in dead bodies, buried at a certain depth, and preserved to a certain degree, from contact with air; having found the muscular flesh frequently converted into true animal fat. This must have arisen from the disengagement of the azote, naturally contained in the animal substance, by some unknown cause, leaving only the hydrogen and charcoal remaining, which are the elements proper for producing fat or oil. This observation upon the possibility of converting animal substances into fat may some time or other lead to discoveries of great importance to society. The faeces of animals, and other excrementitious matters, are chiefly composed of charcoal and hydrogen, and approach considerably to the nature of oil, of which they furnish a considerable quantity by distillation with a naked fire; but the intolerable foetor which accompanies all the products of these substances prevents our expecting that, at least for a long time, they can be rendered useful in any other way than as manures.

I have only given conjectural approximations in this Chapter upon the composition of animal substances, which is hitherto but imperfectly understood. We know that they are composed of hydrogen, charcoal, azote, phosphorus, and sulphur, all of which, in a state of quintuple combination, are brought to the state of oxyd by a larger or smaller quantity of oxygen. We are, however, still unacquainted with the proportions in which these substances are combined, and must leave it to time to complete this part of chemical analysis, as it has already done with several others.

27 Binary combinations are such as consist of two simple elements combined together. Ternary, and quaternary, consist of three and four elements. — E.

28 In the Third Part will be given the description of an apparatus proper for being used in experiments of this kind. — A.

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