I wrote a book about the earth and man. He was always there as a hunting dog on the trail, restless, enthusiastic, with impromptu promptings, which helped me. For example, I wrote about a city with its energy production as an organism. He gave me to read Ezekiel 27, which describes the riches of Tyrus, and when I spoke of the devastation that man wreaks on earth, he showed me places from Isaiah, and we thought of the anciently devastated land of Palestine and read the words of the prophet from my English bible: “The Earth is defiled by the inhabitants thereof.”
Lourens Baas Becking about his imprisonment in Utrecht with Professor Victor Henri Rutgers in July and August 1944.1
In 2016 an English translation of Lourens G.M. Baas Becking’s Geobiologie of Inleiding tot de Milieukunde (Baas Becking, 1934) was published as Baas Becking’s Geobiology, edited by Don E. Canfield, Professor of Ecology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense. The 1934 version of Geobiologie was the result of a series of lectures by the Leiden Professor of General Botany, Lourens G.M. Baas Becking (1895-1963) for an audience of mainly laymen. Geobiologie laid the foundation for geobiology and environmental science as academic disciplines. Until this day Baas Becking is mostly remembered outside his native country by his summary in Geobiologie of Beijerinck’s ‘law’ about the global distribution of microbes: Everything is Everywhere but the Milieu Selects.
In the early 1970s I had been a student of Anton Quispel (1917-2008), from 1960 to 1983 Professor of Experimental Botany in Leiden. He was successor of his former supervisor Baas Becking, who occupied the academic chair from 1931-1945. Quispel had a great admiration for his teacher, which he made clear to his students. Every Leiden biologist of my generation is therefore familiar with Baas Becking’s ubiquity law.
In May 2017 Peter Westbroek, Professor Emeritus of Geophysiology in Leiden, drew my attention to the translation of Baas Becking’s Geobiologie. He also convinced me to organise a meeting to receive Don Canfield during his visit on December 1, 2017, to the Leiden Hortus Botanicus and the former Botanic Laboratory of Baas Becking. I prepared a short presentation and founded the Baas Becking Society to which I invited botanists, microbiologists and geochemists who were involved with the Laboratory in the 1970s.
The result of my early quest was the rediscovery of an English manuscript Geobiology, a copy of a typescript of 830 pages by Baas Becking that was largely finished in Australia. It was an updated and thorough revision of his Geobiologie (1934), this time for an academic audience. However, the manuscript (Baas Becking, 1953a), supplemented with Baas Becking’s handwritten additions until 1953, remained unpublished, because his publisher suggested changes that were unacceptable for Baas Becking.2
The original typescript (circa 220,000 words) with annotations in ink, came in 1979 into possession of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in Amsterdam, as a gift of Baas Becking’s former secretary Mrs. Elisabeth Johanna Drágffy van Peski (1902-1980), who typed the original version. In 1983 it was judged by the Section Biology of the Academy as of historical value but outdated and therefore no longer suitable for publication. Unfortunately, the original typescript is now untraceable and probably no longer in the KNAW collection.
I knew that a still earlier version of Geobiology existed.3 This was written by Baas Becking in July and August 1944 in the Utrecht Kriegswehrmachtgefängnis [German army prison in wartime]. After being convicted by a German naval court for a failed attempt to escape to England, he spent seven weeks with his fellow refugee, the politician and former minister Professor Victor Henri Rutgers (1877-1945), in the Utrecht prison awaiting transport to the German Zuchthaus Siegburg. In the late 1970s it had been in possession of Mrs. C.J. (‘Tine’) Niekerk-Blom (1902-1986), a biologist and intimate friend of the family, who probably donated the manuscript to H.F. Linskens, Professor of Botany, Radboud University, Nijmegen. In November 2017 I found this version of Geobiology in the catalogue of the autograph dealer Thomas Kotte in Rosshaupten, Germany. Unfortunately, it took 14 months before I could obtain the document. Like the 1953 Geobiology typescript in Amsterdam, the 1944 manuscript in Rosshaupten turned out to be untraceable. In January 2019 however, it was finally found in the Rosshaupten autograph collection and sent to me. Then I decided on a thorough investigation of Lourens Baas Becking’s Geobiology. The result of that decision is the present annotated edition of Geobiology, whose transcription and annotation have provided me with comfort during the past two years of corona lockdowns and concerns about the health of my dear wife.
Geobiology (1944), a 388 page ledger written in pencil in small difficult, barely legible handwriting, is not only a unique biological treatise, but also a ‘document humain’. Baas Becking’s personal circumstances are clearly reflected in the manuscript. Geobiology gives an impression of his ideas as a botanist, physiologist and microbiologist of the symbiosis of life and earth. The manuscript also shows his multifaceted interest in fields other than those of his expertise. Baas Becking was well acquainted with the contemporary knowledge and research of geology, astronomy and biochemistry. In addition, he was able to apply mathematical, statistical and physical techniques to biological problems. Geobiology was written in prison in a threatening situation with a real chance of the author not surviving it. Moreover, he had to work under circumstances of a very limited access to the resources necessary for such an undertaking. Seen from that perspective Geobiology is his intellectual last will, a scientific testament.
Compared to the later, more elaborate and extended 1953 version, which was mainly based on literature of post-war research, the 1944 version of Geobiology is much more impulsive, because the nearly 65,000 words were feverishly written in only seven weeks. The text is largely based on his own pre-war research and that of his colleagues and PhD students and it further demonstrates his understanding of the development of physiology and microbiology in Germany, France and the United States over the previous 100 years.
Although Geobiology (1944) is unfinished and has major gaps, it remains an inspiring memoir of a scientist who records his enlightened vision on the relationship between life and earth. Long before James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis defined the Gaia hypothesis in the early 1970s as, “the notion of the biosphere as an adaptive control system that can maintain the Earth in homeostasis,” Baas Becking attempted to “describe the relationship between organisms and the Earth.”4 Already in 1931 that had been the subject of Baas Becking’s inaugural address, Gaia or Life and Earth, in Leiden. However, contrary to that academic oration, the manuscript written in the Utrecht prison is not only the visionary perspective of a well informed and creative scientist, but also a personal complaint of a geobiologist over the disastrous treatment of the earth by man. In the manuscript of Geobiology he introduced a broad concept of symbiosis, and extended it to man’s place in the biosphere: Man is not alone, and, as all other organisms, is highly dependent on the other participants of the biosphere. Man is part of a general symbiosis in which he must participate, but where he has made himself responsible for the stimulation of different aspects of dissipation.5Geobiology (1944) provides a gripping and unique image of the man and his time, as well as an insight into Baas Becking’s biological experience and feelings of despair. Therefore, this version of Geobiology still has sufficient topical value, even after 75 years, to be published as a Geochemical Perspectives.
Utrecht, February 10, 2022
Dr. Alexander J.P. Raat
LOURENS GERHARD MARINUS BAAS BECKING (1895-1963)
Baas Becking was undoubtedly one of the most gifted biologists of his time and he also had great talents in other fields of science and in that of art. His ideas were almost always original and often with a touch of a genius. However, his mind was so restless that he usually did not allow himself the time to test and elaborate these ideas thoroughly, because new thoughts captured him. That same restlessness and mobility characterised his entire personality; he was brilliant, witty and idealistic, but also emotional and out of control and therefore not always fair in his judgment, often with an urge for the romantic and heroic.
Victor J. Koningsberger (1963)
The motto written by Lourens Baas Becking’s friend and former fellow student Professor Victor Koningsberger, gives an impression about his talents and character. It is a sketch of a dominating man and a brilliant and inspiring biologist. If we survey his life and work however, the picture is less exuberant. The ambitious student, researcher, Professor in Stanford and Leiden, Director of the institutes of the Botanic Garden in the Dutch East Indies is another person than the scientist after the war. Baas Becking was traumatised through the fearful experiences of terror in Europe, the Indonesian National Revolution and by the conflicts in his professional and the calamities in his personal life. The ambition had been replaced by bitterness, disappointment and grief. His efforts after the war in the coordination of scientific research in Indonesia, the directorate of the Bogor Botanic Garden and his work for the Research Council of the South Pacific Commission were unsuccessful, mainly because of his inflexibility. Nevertheless, he was able to spend the last ten years of his life in Australia working as a respected researcher without the burden of great responsibilities. He remained fascinated by life as a process, however he continued to be cynical and ruthless when he described the role of humans in that process and in the destruction of life on earth. All in all, his life and works evoke both admiration and compassion.6
Youth and Study in Delft and Utrecht (1895-1919)
Lourens Gerhard Marinus (‘Lou’) Baas Becking was born January 4, 1895 in the Dutch provincial town of Deventer. He was the youngest son of Marinus Ludovicus Baas Becking (1844-1904) and his 21 year younger wife Anna Maria Helena Berkhout (1865-1941). Lou’s father had been an administrator of Oud Djember, a tobacco estate in Besuki (East Java) in the Dutch East Indies. In April 1888, a year before his marriage in June 1889, Marinus Ludovicus returned to Deventer and became an agent for George Birnie, the owner of the Oud Djember tobacco company. Lou spent his early youth in Deventer and The Hague with his parents, sister Anna Gerharda Hermanna (1892-1969) and his brother Jan Floris (1893-1906).
His mother was the central person of his youth, his father died in 1904. In 1908, two years after his brother’s death the family moved to Amersfoort. There his mother kept a boarding house for children whose parents were in the Dutch East Indies. In The Hague his mother had been active in the Rein Leven Beweging [Pure Life Movement]. This movement, founded in 1901, was based on Leo Tolstoy’s Christian anarchist and pacifist thought. In Amersfoort, Lou’s mother was actively involved in all kinds of initiatives in the field of women’s emancipation. Lou was since 1908 a pupil at the Rijks HBS, a secondary school in Amersfoort. His natural history teacher was Dr. Theodorus Weevers, a student of Hugo de Vries and since 1924 Professor of Plant Physiology and Pharmacognosy in Amsterdam. He must have stimulated Lou to botanise in the area around Amersfoort.7 In his inaugural address in Leiden Gaia of Leven en Aarde [Gaia or Life and Earth] (Baas Becking, 1931b), Baas Becking thanked him, “because he developed and led his interest in botany.” In July 1913 Lou graduated from secondary school and went to the Technical Highschool (the present Technical University) in Delft, to become a chemical engineer.
In Delft he followed courses in mathematics, theoretical and applied physics, chemistry, mechanical technology and mineralogy. He was an editor of the Studenten Weekblad [Students Weekly], in which he published a romantic, naturalistic poem. Although he had serious asthmatic complaints, he was an active student. According to Jacoba Ruinen his great energy expansion gave rise in Utrecht to the saying that Baas Becking could assist for 8 hours, study for 8 hours and make time to party for the rest of the 24 hours. In May 1914 he left Delft without the propedeuse degree. Nevertheless, the year and a half in Delft had been a particularly formative period for Baas Becking. It is probable that his admiration for the work of the Delft Professor Martinus Beijerinck was aroused at that time.
Baas Becking left Delft because it was no longer necessary to be graduated from a Gymnasium to enter University. So, Lou enrolled as a student of botany and zoology in the Utrecht University. He returned to his mother’s house in Amersfoort and became a ‘railway student’. From the later correspondence with his supervisor the Utrecht Professor of Botany and Director of the Botanical Garden F.A.F.C. Went (1863-1935), it is clear that he must have built up personal contacts with other Professors in Utrecht: the plant taxonomist A.A. Pulle, the zoologist H.F. Nierstrasz and the physiologist H.J. Jordan. After graduating, he kept in touch with many of his former fellow students, such as Victor J. Koningsberger, Herman J. Lam, Henri G. Derx and Huib van Mook.
In 1917 he became a member of the Netherlands Botanical Society. He published two papers in De Levende Natuur: on the relationship between the different forms of common club moss (1917) and another on deviating shapes of the flowers of orchids (1919).8 In April 1918 he was appointed with Victor Koningsberger, assistant in the botanical laboratory of his mentor F.A.F.C. Went. For his graduation he chose a genetic topic. His premise was that “for certain applications of the Mendelian laws, an all-encompassing treatment of mathematical heredity is still lacking.” He published three papers on numerical relationships in panmictic populations that testify to his knowledge of mathematics and probability theory.9 He concluded that testing his theoretically obtained results “would be of some interest in practice on one and the same population.” But he wondered “whether a mathematical treatment of more complicated problems (factor coupling, crossing over, etc.) would give results that correspond to practice.” In June 1919 he graduated cum laude as a biologist.
Two days after his graduation Baas Becking married Rabina Haverman (1892-1949). Rabina (‘Bine’) was the daughter of the Hendrik Johannes Haverman, a portrait painter in The Hague, and Carolina Birnie, also a painter. Carolina was the daughter of George Birnie, the owner of the Oud Djember tobacco company. After finishing school Rabina spent two years in London (1908-1910), “to learn the finesse of haute couture sewing”, as her daughter Daya wrote in her memoires. In 1911 she went for several years to rural Bradner (Abbotsford) in Canada. There her brother Philippe and her uncle Gerard Louis Johan (‘Louis’) Birnie had bought pieces of land in the wilderness near the Fraser River to exploit their property as agricultural land. Louis Birnie was married to Louise (‘Wies’) Berkhout, the sister of Lou Baas Becking’s mother.10
The married couple left shortly after his doctoral examination for California, according to Jacoba Ruinen “on medical advice, which also applied to his young wife Rabina Haverman.” He did not seek his career in the Dutch East Indies, like many of his contemporaries.
Doctor’s Degree of Stanford and Utrecht University (1919-1921)
Early October 1919, Lou and his wife Rabina arrived at Stanford University in Palo Alto. They had travelled by boat to Philadelphia. On board they met Adriaan van Maanen, a Dutch astronomer who had worked since 1912 at the Mount Wilson observatory in Pasadena. They stayed several days at Pasadena, where they met the American astronomer Harlow Shapley. The discussions with Shapley and Van Maanen may have given Baas Becking the idea of relating changes in the emission and absorption spectrum to physiological processes in living organisms. This became the basis of his doctor’s thesis Radiation and Vital Phenomena, in 1921 in Utrecht.
In December 1919 however, he started his Stanford PhD research on the embryology of the eusporangiate ferns Botrychum, under supervision of Professor Douglas Houghton Campbell, one of the fifteen founding Professors of Stanford University.11 To his mentor in Utrecht Professor Went he confessed, “I consider the work I do under Dr Campbell to be a necessary part of my botanical education! In the future it will not be my line.” In March 1921, he wrote to Went: “I must tell you frankly that I am glad that the work under Campbell has ended. The material was so rare that I shivered when I had to cut it. Fortunately, none of the 6 prothallia failed – so that I can keep 21 slides (of which I can keep 10 for the lab. in Utrecht).” Apparently, the experimental work for his PhD dissertation was finished within fifteen months. February 24, 1921 the final oral examination for his degree of Doctor of Philosophy was held in Palo Alto. Shortly afterwards Lou and his wife Rabina returned to Holland for a period of eight months. So, he was not present on June 20, 1921, when President Ray Lyman Wilbur awarded Baas Becking the doctor’s degree.
In February 1920, he received a university fellowship paying $750 per year, “at least a useful addition”, in view of “my wife’s health.” In August 1920, he was appointed acting instructor in botany, “lecturer” according to Baas Becking, for the autumn and winter quarters of 1920-21. The Daily Palo Alto explained: “He will conduct work in plant physiology before leaving for Holland to engage in botanical work there.” Baas Becking replaced the plant physiologist Professor George James Peirce, who took a sabbatical to update his Plantphysiology, which, incidentally, was characterised by Baas Becking as “below all criticism (this sub rosa).”
Lou and Rabina lived on what he earned as a tutor. Together they made microscopic series preparations in the evening for additional money for the Drosophila research of T.H. Morgan. On May 28, 1921, on leave in Holland, he gave a scientific address in Utrecht for the Netherlands Botanical Society, which made, according to Koningsberger, “a deep impression.” During his lecture Baas Becking demonstrated the microscopic preparations of the cytological studies of C.B. Bridges in Morgan’s laboratory: “In Holland there were doubts about the correctness of Morgan’s theory that the genes in the chromosomes are arranged linearly and that in factor coupling one has to deal with genes that are located in the same chromosome. Unequivocally, the opposite was apparent from the preparations of Baas Becking, which led the doubters to change their minds.”12
October 21, 1921, Baas Becking obtained in Utrecht his second Doctorate cum laude for his remarkable very hastily written thesis Radiation and Vital Phenomena.13 His idea was to draw up a law of conservation of energy for a biological process, in which all forms of energy were taken into account, including the then relatively unknown radiation energy.14 Baas Becking based the concept of his thesis on the experiments on Brownian motion of the French physicist and Nobel Prize winner Jean Perrin, which he summarised as: “In every system there is an equilibrium between “normal” and “active” molecules, only the latter taking part in the chemical reaction. Rise in temperature will cause more of these activated molecules to be formed. In the period 1909-1919 the basis for this activation was sought in the influence of radiation.” He acknowledged the advice of Harlow Shapley, at that time director of the observatory of Harvard University and David L. Webster, Professor of Physics at Stanford, who published on the theory of quantum emission, radiation, absorption and heat emission. He also referred to the Utrecht Professor of Theoretical Physics Leonard Salomon Ornstein and the Dutch Nobel Prize winner physicist Hendrik Lorenz.
In Geobiology (1953) he reviewed his effort to account for the temperature sensitivity of vital reactions by means of Perrin’s hypothesis: “Later work has shown Perrin’s theory to be unsatisfactory, radiation alone being clearly insufficient to account for chemical activation.”
Career in Stanford University (1922-1927)
In January 1922 Baas Becking returned to Stanford, as an instructor in the Botany Department, for the courses usually given by Professor Campbell. On his way to Palo Alto, he looked up Wintrop Osterhout and Jacques Loeb, editors of the Journal of General Physiology, in the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole: “They are interesting people, anyway. Loeb had nominated me for a national research fellowship. With this venerating paper, I went to the president of our university, who has now taken steps that will allow me to stay here.” September 1, 1922, he was appointed as a staff member at Stanford University as an assistant Professor in Economic Botany. His salary raised from $1800 to $2500. In March 1925 he became an Associate Professor of Economic Biology.
For his colleagues in The Netherlands, he made translations, such as 246 botanical descriptions for the Utrecht Professor Pulle and a chapter in a book of the physiologist Professor Hendrik Zwaardemaker.15 It took him too much time. Meanwhile he also did chemical advisory work as a consultant in plant physiology for the Bureau of Chemistry in Washington, with special assignment to diagnose frost damage in orange groves. The content of his publications shows an expansion of his interests. As a follow up of his Utrecht dissertation, he published research on the effect of light on the permeability of lecithin (1924). In 1925, together with Leland Baker, he wrote a mathematical treatise on growth, a subject that he would continue in later years with his Leiden PhD student E. Drion (1936) and in 1946 with an Analysis of Sigmoid Curves. In a letter to Went (May 1924) he summarised his conclusion: “No simple laws can be derived for growth rate, cell length, number of cells and length of cell chains.” As well, a start was made with microbiological work, which later took a permanent place in his study of extreme environments and of symbiosis. From 1924 on he published on sulphur and purple bacteria, iron organisms, coralline algae, Dunaliella and the metabolism of autotrophic bacteria. In the 1930s this research was continued by his students in Leiden.
In July 1923 his son Jan Matthias was born in Palo Alto. Two years afterwards, in June 1925, a second son Hendrik Gerhard (‘Dick’) was born. In his correspondence with Professor Went in Utrecht Baas Becking referred to camping weekends of the family along the Pacific coast.
In February 1924 Baas Becking organised an exhibit in the library of Stanford, which resulted from his paper on Van Leeuwenhoeck in Scientific Monthly (Baas Becking, 1924a). A report in The Daily Palo Alto gave an impression of Baas Becking’s knowledge of the history of microbiology, which is also evident in his 1944 and 1953 manuscripts of Geobiology. In 1931 he published another historical study, Historical Notes on Salt and Salt Manufacture, also in Scientific Monthly (Baas Becking, 1931c). In the unpublished 1953 version of Geobiology this topic was updated and supplemented with data he had collected in California, Portugal, Indonesia and Australia in the 1920s and 1930s.
Miquel Professorship in Utrecht (1927-1928)
From the correspondence with his former PhD supervisor F.A.F.C Went it is evident that Baas Becking had strong ambitions. His critical and often arrogant comments on his colleagues can be found in the letters as early as 1919. Already in 1924, Went promoted him and Victor Koningsberger as Director of the Amsterdam Hortus, a position that Hugo de Vries’ pupil T.H. Stomps eventually obtained. Baas Becking wrote in December 1924 from Stanford: “Too bad Victor [Koningsberger] or I didn’t get Amsterdam! Whether we can compete with Stomps!! That doesn’t seem very difficult to me. If I ever came to Holland, Professor, I would seriously try to be a second Westerdijk!” He referred to the plant pathologist Johanna Westerdijk, in 1917 appointed in Utrecht as the first female Professor in The Netherlands. In 1924 her portrait and those of Beijerinck and Went were on his desk.
From 1925 on Baas Becking tried to arrange a temporary exchange with a Dutch Professor. The letters to Went show his insistent and restless approach: “Professor Pulle is unable to exchange with me in 1927. I tried Nierstrasz, but have little confidence he will care to come. The people have been sitting so long in their easy chairs that I am sure they have a rather exalted idea about Dutch science, and think in their innermost conscience that a position in this country is vastly inferior to a Professorship in one of the Dutch fresh-ware universities (October 6, 1925).”
No exchange took place however, but in June 1926 Professors Went and Pulle arranged a grant of 4000 florins from the Miquel Fund for his sabbatical year (April 1927-June 1928) in Utrecht. Baas Becking wrote to Went: “Your hospitable offer has touched us very much and we feel now that with the additional amount from the Holland-American Foundation and my one-half pay and some consultation funds, I hope to collect this summer, we will be able to make the trip without borrowing more money from my already indignant relatives (June 23, 1926).”
During his absence in Europe his former fellow student in the Utrecht Botanical laboratory, H.L. van de Sande Bakhuyzen, would replace him as acting assistant Professor of Economic Biology. Van de Sande Bakhuyzen (‘Bakkie’), arrived in February 1924, as a research associate at the Stanford Food Research Institute. He worked on a monographic study on the growth of Triticum, under the auspices of Hoover food research.16 His wife Henriette Francisca Gerhards, who obtained her doctor’s degree in Stanford in May 1927, was co-author of Baas Becking’s The Physical State of Protoplasm (1928). She followed very carefully the Brownian movement of fine granules in the outer layers of protoplasma of Spirogyra. L.V. Heilbrunn, a well known expert on protoplasm research of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, “admired her patience and care that went into what must have been a very trying series of measurements”, but remarked that the senior author, “was apparently not too well aware of just what his collaborators had done. There were occasional contradictions, not infrequent misquotations of the literature, and other evidences of carelessness.”17 Baas Becking, in a letter to his mentor Went called it “an impossible critique of my viscosity piece in protoplasm by friend Heilbrunn, who is generally mistaken for querulant here.”
The Daily Palo Alto reported April 7, 1927 that “Dr. and Mrs. Laurence B. Becking and their two children sailed recently from San Francisco for Holland, where Dr. Becking will hold the Miquel Professorship at the University of Utrecht during the next academic year. They will visit relatives during the intervening month. Dr. Becking will return to Stanford in June 1928. The Miquel Professorship is an honor conferred ordinarily only once in four years.”
On October 3, 1927, Baas Becking delivered his inaugural address Over de Algemeenheid van het Leven [On the Universality of Life] in Utrecht. Four days later he started the course General Physiology of the Cell. His notes for the course are kept in the Adolph Basser Library Manuscript Collection, in Canberra Australia.18 The programme is divided into 31 topics that are grouped into four main sections: Introduction, Internal Environment, External Environment and Organization in Environment. Each week one or more topics were discussed. The course lasted until April 1928. The outline of the course is broadly the work plan for Geobiologie.
Herzstein Professor and Director Jacques Loeb Laboratory, Hopkins Marine Station (1928-1931)
In June 1928 the Baas Becking family travelled back to Stanford via Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua. He confided to Went: “It will be difficult to start work in the Stanford environment. I was so wonderfully established in Utrecht, but if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s the atmosphere of a laboratory where things are done – and maybe I’ll be able to create that atmosphere, at least partially in the new laboratory.”
In March 1926 it was already decided that Baas Becking on his return to the United States would be staying at the Hopkin’s Marine Station at Pacific Grove. In 1928 Stanford University provided additional facilities at the Marine Station for the research programme in biological sciences. The research in physiology came under the general direction of Baas Becking, who also held the newly created Herzstein Professorship of Biology. According to The Daily Palo Alto, the new unit of the Hopkins Marine Station was called the Jacques Loeb Laboratory for Marine Physiology, in honour of Jacques Loeb, who a few years ago made his startling experiments and discoveries in artificial parthenogenesis near the place where the new laboratory was erected. To the staff of the Laboratory belonged the Japanese chemist Tadaichi Y. Hashimoto (assistant Professor), Harold Mestre (assistant Professor) and C.R. (‘Kees’) van Niel (associated Professor).
Baas Becking had been the supervisor of Mestre, who obtained his doctor’s degree for work on chlorophyl and photosynthesis in 1928. In late 1927, during his sabbatical, Baas Becking offered Van Niel a position as microbiologist at the new Jacques Loeb Laboratory. He had just successfully finished his PhD thesis at the Delft laboratory of Beijerinck’s successor Professor A.J. Kluyver. In December 1928 Van Niel arrived in Carmel with his wife and baby. One year later Baas Becking reported: “Cornelis van Niel, an extremely careful, fine worker who may still have to find himself (at least he imitates Beijerinck a bit too much). The work he has done is truly excellent.” In April 1930 he wrote: “Everything he does is so world conquering that sometimes I think he’s a genius and sometimes he still has a lot to learn.” Van Niel remained at the Marine Station until his retirement in 1962 and became famous for his work on purple bacteria and photosynthesis.
In 1929 Baas Becking bought a house in Carmel, which indicates that he planned to remain in the United States for a longer time. In 1925 he was already naturalised as an American citizen. Before he took the decision, he had confidentially asked advice of his “guide, friend and philosopher” Went (April 1924). According to Baas Becking it was “possibly a sentimental feeling of what they call fairness”, that led to his decision to naturalise: “To enjoy the many benefits offered without taking on the slightest responsibility. Working for and with people with whom you are not equal. It’s half work”. But he also remarked that naturalisation would make life easier in America. Although he liked his work and the opportunities of his American job, he nonetheless preferred a Dutch position above “a better career” in the States, even if that meant “sacrificing financial and health concerns – I wouldn’t hesitate.”
Professor of General Botany Leiden University (1931)
Baas Becking’s communication with the Director of the Hopkins Marine Laboratory, Professor Walter Fisher, was disturbed. Upon his return from the Netherlands in June 1928 however, he wrote: “For mysterious reasons or other reasons Fisher was most friendly and I believe that we arrived at a complete understanding”. In December 1929 however, he spoke of an “armed peace” with Fisher: “It remains a paltry feeling to have been allowed to design, develop and staff a large laboratory and then see the matter “managed” by a zoological taxonomist, an ignorant about physiology and worse, who is even annoyed by it.” In February 1930 he complained about “the total lack [at Stanford University] of common pursuit and the absence of a recognised academic standard makes the work of the committees I belong to a farce.” This remark was made a month after he had been asked by Professor Jacob Marinus Janse, to succeed him on the chair of botany at the University of Leiden. Baas Becking replied that it would be “a heavy sacrifice to break away from everything at Stanford.” Still, he showed his willingness to return to his homeland. He asked his mentor Went for an opinion, and formulated his conditions such as “a reasonable salary” and “funds to modernise the botanical laboratory”. He also asked for a separate Professorship of Special Botany: “I remember just enough to call a daisy ‘Bellis perenis’, but someone has to teach systematics, plant geography and colonial botany. That must be a ‘man from the Dutch Indies’ (preferably Lam, but please don’t say that any further).” He realised that Victor Koningsberger, who was at Passerun (Java) director of the experimental station of the sugar industry, was also a candidate and declared to be loyal to his friend when he obtained the position in Leiden.
Apparently, his conditions were accepted, including an additional condition of a “year leave”, which he spent in 1936 to study salt lakes and salt works in Asia and Australia. October 6, 1930, he received a telegram from the curators of the Leiden University that he was appointed as Professor of General Botany. Monday November 10, 1930, The Daily Palo Alto announced: “Resignation of Professor Laurence B. Becking as Herzstein Professor of Botany at Stanford, to accept the directorship of the Botanical Institute at the University of Leyden, Holland, and the chair of botany at that university, was announced Friday. Becking, who is a native of Holland, has been at Stanford since 1919, connected chiefly with the Jacques Loeb Laboratory of the Hopkins Marine Station.” December 30, 1930, several Dutch newspapers published a photo of Baas Becking with his dogs, “returned by S.S. Volendam in The Netherlands to take up his office as Professor in Leiden in January.”
One week after his arrival in Leiden, Baas Becking’s house was already freshly wallpapered. He paid a visit to the minister of education in The Hague. The minister “was willing to listen to his plans”. In the 1930s he regularly visited the ministry on his own initiative, bypassing the curators of the university to their annoyance. When he first met his students, they asked him to organise a practical course in physiology. He immediately planned six experiments, each a full week, under the name Meten en Rekenen [Measuring and Calculating], a playful reference to Door Meten tot Weten [Through Measuring to Knowing], the slogan of the Leiden Nobel Prize winner Heike Kamerlingh Onnes.
He began his correspondence with Herman Lam at the Bogor Herbarium about the Professorship of Special Botany in Leiden. Lam set financial and practical conditions. October 1933 he finally arrived in Leiden. According to Marius Jacobs in his biography of Lam (1984), Baas Becking was at that time already an all pervading force in the faculty. He had ideas on everything. His habit of dropping ideas, making plans, inspiring others, and then moving on, terrified many. Lam kept for this purpose a diary to record his position in relation with Baas Becking. The nine volumes (1933-1948), preserved in the library of Naturalis in Leiden, are a rich source of information about Lam and Baas Becking’s characters and activities. So, we read in Lam’s notes on Thursday March 15, 1934:
Yesterday we had a conversation with Mrs. Boshuizen, who thinks physiology is “teasing plants” and who got a telling off from Lou, because she doesn’t feel much about physiology. I had a talk with Lou about this, and said that in my opinion one can be a good biologist without feeling much about physiology, but admitted that one must have worked in physiology for his doctoral exam. In the meantime, I pointed out to Mrs. B. that her expressions are not very parliamentary and that one should not say everything as one thinks.
Although there was hardly any money available for architectural and constructional changes in the Laboratory, Baas Becking managed, partly due to his good contacts in The Hague, to realise these by employing unemployed workers. Under the tight budgetary curtailments of the 1930s, a reorganisation took place not only in the Laboratory and the Hortus, but also the teaching programme, in which the assistants as well as the technical personnel and students played an active part. He also succeeded in building a new greenhouse complex in the Hortus with a laboratory for plant physiological research, which replaced the old ramshackle hot-houses, whilst the historical Orangerie was also restored to its full glory. In 1938 The Hortus Academicus Lugdunio-Batavus 1587-1937 was published, the history of the Leiden Hortus Botanicus. Against the custom of the time, Hero Veendorp, the hortulanus [keeper of the garden], was the first author and Baas Becking his co-author.
In the fourteen years, that he spent in Leiden, there appeared at least twenty publications from himself or co-authored with his students. Also, seventeen dissertations were completed on topics as diverse as microbiology, biochemistry, photosynthesis, protoplasmatics, salt biology and the mathematical analysis of biological processes. His own work was mainly concerned with microorganisms in saline environments. This was a continuation of his work in America. In the late 1920s he and his Stanford colleagues annually took trips at the end of the dry season to the salt lakes of Utah and the Sierra Nevada. In November 1928, they conducted research in Utah lakes where, according to Baas Becking’s colleague Peirce, “Organisms are alive that should not be.” From 1929 on, these excursions were pursued with laboratory experiments together with C.B. van Niel.19 In Chapter X Brine in Geobiologie (1934) Baas Becking summarised his findings. Aharon Oren (2011) gave an introduction to Baas Becking’s halophylic world.
On July 24, 1935, Baas Becking’s teacher, friend and mentor F.A.F.C. Went died. After his retirement in 1933, Baas Becking had arranged an extraordinary chair for Went in Leiden. Went still held his oration, but no longer lectured due to his death. In August 1935 Baas Becking wrote a short in memoriam in the Vakblad voor Biologen in which he wrote in a solemn tone that “a great light is extinguished, but not until it has lit many lights.”
That summer the 6th International Botanical Congress was organised in Amsterdam. Baas Becking gave a lecture about the freshening of the Zuiderzee, a brackish branch of the North Sea that was separated from the sea in 1932 by a 32 km long dam [Afsluitdijk]. His talk was a review of the biological changes and was mainly based on research of other scientists. He also read a paper Halophytes and Antagonism, a phenomenon that was later also discussed in Geobiology.
December 24, 1935, the Dutch Senate agreed to naturalise Baas Becking. Although senator N.Ch. de Gijzelaar criticised the government’s naturalisation policy, he explained: “Now it is impossible, in my opinion, not to naturalise Prof. Baas Becking; it would not only be grossly unfair, but would be a major disadvantage to the honour of our country and to science in our country.”
From February till September 1936, he took, with the fisheries biologist dr. J. Reuter, a study trip to the salterns of Bombay (India), the salt lakes in South Australia, the hot springs and volcanic waters of Madura and East and West Java (Indonesia) and the salt work Alagamento do Horta, near Praias (Portugal). In 1938 he wrote a short report of his journey in the Proceedingsof the Royal Netherlands Society of Sciences and in Geobiology (1953) he described the lakes in Chapter IV Water in great detail in three paragraphs, which read like a travel journal. In addition, he made a report about the Australian salt lakes that he and Reuter visited, the commissioner of which is unknown. For the Dutch East Indies government, they also drew up an advisory report about salt production in Madura, “in which a method of biological cleaning of the brine was proposed”, and later applied.20
‘s Lands Plantentuin Buitenzorg (1939-1940)
The visit became a turning point in his life. The country, as well as the scientific research done there and the enormous working area made a deep impression on him. In May 1936 in Buitenzorg he was consulted about the future of the Botanic Garden and its institutes by the Director of the Department of Economic Affairs. He submitted a report Over de beteekenis van ‘s Lands Plantentuin (1936) [On the Significance of the Buitenzorg Botanic Garden]. His approach agreed with Koningsberger’s opinion on a more practice oriented role of the institutes. Moreover, it matched with ideas and plans for a new colonial science of his friend and former fellow student in Delft Huib van Mook, who became Director of Economic Affairs in 1937.
As early as March 1938, Dutch newspapers reported the rumour that Baas Becking had been asked to succeed Dr. K.W. Dammerman, Director of the Buitenzorg Botanic Garden. Six months later it was announced that he would temporarily go to Buitenzorg, retaining his Leiden academic chair. His task was to reorganise the institutions of the Botanic Garden and to coordinate the scientific research and facilities of the private experiment stations, thus promoting the exchange of people between the different institutions. Early in 1939, Baas Becking, his wife and their 7 year old daughter Davida Carolina (‘Daya’), accompanied by Jacoba Ruinen as assistant, travelled to the East Indies. Two months later he was appointed acting Director of the Botanic Garden. Their sons Jan (16) and Dick (14) remained in Holland, but in November 1939, their parents sent them to the Dutch East Indies, because of the threat of war.
Andrew Goss described the role of Baas Becking in the reorganisation of biological research:21 he wasted no time submitting his advice, which was in line with Van Mook’s enlightened vision of colonial science. However, administrative follow through was not Baas Becking’s strong suit. He did not like dealing with the officials, lecturing them instead on the importance of biology. Nonetheless Van Mook carried through with the reorganisation plans, dragging Baas Becking and everyone else along. According to Goss “Van Mook’s vision of a technocratic Plantentuin” cut through the ‘applied’ versus the ‘pure’ dichotomy that had defined the debate about colonial science since the 1910s.22 The institutes of the Botanic Garden had to become a coordinating body where it could pursue a true worldwide scientific policy.
The reorganisation plan was adopted by the Volksraad at the end of February 1940. Baas Becking was appointed Director of ‘s Lands Plantentuin for a period of five years. March 4, 1940, he left for the Netherlands for three months, to resign from his position in Leiden and to consult with the Ondernemingsraad, in which the companies of the private experimental stations in the Indies were united. His family remained in the director’s building in Buitenzorg.
Second World War (1940-1945)
On April 24, 1940, Baas Becking held his farewell oration in Leiden, “arguing for a social awareness among naturalists, to feel responsible for the fruits of their labour and for the manufacture of all kinds of ‘toys’, which would be taken out of their hands anyway.”23 However, the consultation with the Ondernemingsraad May 7, 1940 was not successful, because it was feared that there would be interference by the Garden authorities in several areas that threatened the independence of the private companies. Through the research coordination, the task of private experiment stations would no longer be determined by them.24
Baas Becking was to return to the East Indies on May 10, 1940, but the German occupation of the Netherlands made this impossible. Therefore, he kept his post at the university. Baas Becking belonged to the group of 22 Leiden Professors who already on June 22, 1940, decided to form a small resistance group. The aim of the group was “to draw a line in order to give support to the others: the group tried to create a national awareness and attitude of resistance in matters concerning the university”. That summer he tried to escape to England with his sailing boat, but he was unable to bring the small wooden boat to the coast. In October 1940 he again attempted to escape, this time with the secret agent Lodo van Hamel, who was dropped in the Netherlands in August 1940.25 In September 1940 Baas Becking had received a message from London, “to continue his work in Java as soon as possible.” Underground resistance workers brought him into contact with Van Hamel. The attempt to escape failed as well. The seaplane that was to pick up the refugees in the Frisian Tjeukemeer on October 13, could not land. They were arrested by the Dutch police, who handed them over to the German Sicherheitsdienst. The prisoners were transferred to the German prison in Scheveningen, ‘Het Oranjehotel’. There Baas Becking stayed in solitary confinement in Untersuchungshaft. On April 9, 1941, he was released under parole. Lodo van Hamel was executed on June 16, 1941.
On May 9, 1941, his mother died in Dutch Bergen. The obituary calls her “our faithful Mother.” He returned to Leiden, where the university had been closed by the German authorities on November 27, 1940, after Professor R.P. Cleveringa’s speech on the forced dismissal of his Jewish former teacher Professor E. Meijers. The ban concerned lectures, examinations and practical courses of students. The staff remained in service. Baas Becking managed to transfer his students and assistants to other universities. April 28, 1942, the Professorial resistance group decided to resign collectively as a protest against the measures implemented by the Nazi regime. The same day, Baas Becking tendered his resignation. According to a colleague, Baas Becking was one of the ‘diehards’ of the resistance. He put pressure on his doubting colleagues, he visited the former rector magnificus A.W. Byvanck, who was “deathly pale, as if he had signed his death warrant.” In the end, 58 out of 93 Professors and lecturers would resign. The reaction of the German authorities was fierce. 22 Professors “were honourably discharged” at their request from their positions as ordinary Professors at Leiden University with effect from June 1, 1942. In July and August however, most of them were arrested and taken as hostages to Sint-Michielsgestel. Baas Becking escaped from captivity. By the help of his friend the biochemist Henri G. Derx, he was put in charge of a research group at Unilever in Rotterdam that studied the preservation of fruit and vegetables by keeping them at low temperatures.
He had no fixed address, that also may have helped him to remain out of German captivity. The first two years of the war he lived with his sister-in-law Eliza Haverman-Pinke in Scheveningen, thereafter he regularly stayed in Leiden with biologist and friend of the family Mrs. C.J. Niekerk-Blom (‘Tine’) and her four daughters, or with the De Jongh family in the Haarlemmerstraat. In Apeldoorn he used to stay with Jeanne Teding van Berkhout-Tutein Nolthenius, whose husband, lieutenant colonel Jacob Johan Teding van Berkhout, a war hero, died in May 1944 in the Natzweiler concentration camp. Despite the danger of being arrested by the Sicherheitsdienst or to be betrayed by members of the Dutch NSB [Nazi party], he attended meetings of the Academy of Sciences in Amsterdam. He had been appointed Academy Member in 1935, in the vacancy caused by the death of Hugo de Vries. In October 1942, he delivered the Robert Mayer memorial lecture, on Dissipation and Entropy. At the end of November, he proposed in the general meeting of the Academy, to cease all activities in protest against the decision that Jews could no longer be members of the Academy. His proposal was defeated with 27 to 24 votes. He resigned; his friends and colleagues W.J. de Haas, Jan Hendrik Oort and Hans A. Kramers were the only Academy members to follow him.
Attempt to Escape to England and Creation of Geobiology (1944)
On April 26, 1944, Baas Becking and four fellow refugees, among whom the politician and former minister Professor Victor Rutgers, made an attempt to escape by boat to England.26 They managed to make it 50 km out to sea at night when the engine failed. They were adrift for three days. On April 29 the boat had drifted to the Dutch coast off Schouwen. They were fired upon and later boarded by an armed trawler. All incriminating documents had been thrown overboard earlier. After having spent a few days in prison in Middelburg, Baas Becking was transported to Haaren, together with his fellow refugees. From May 15 until the end of June 1944 he was locked up together with three fellow refugees in a cell in Haaren as a prisoner of the German Kriegsmarine. Mrs. Niekerk-Blom was allowed “to bring him food and books, including the ledger, in which he then wrote down his thoughts on geobiology in pencil. I can never forget how he stood there next to the prison guard, touched but still tense and intensively listening and absorbing what he was told and understood in a language with twisted names.”27
Apparently, she brought him the ledger in which he would write Geobiology. On the title page Baas Becking noted the date “April 1, 1944” and a dedication “to T.”, most likely Tine Niekerk-Blom. The date suggests that Baas Becking had bought or received the notebook three weeks before his attempt to escape to England. In Haaren he had ink and a pen at his disposal, which he used to record the structure of Geobiology in the cashbook. He made a table of contents with 10 chapters, which were divided into 76 sections. For each section, he estimated the number of pages he thought he would need to fill the sections with text. He then divided the sections into the ledger by writing in ink the titles of the sections on the pages specified in the table of contents.
At the end of June 1944, the prisoners were “heavily handcuffed and transferred to the Wehrmachtgefängnis in Utrecht.” Baas Becking and Rutgers were put in a neat cell. Sometimes there was a very long time for airing, and then they could smoke to their heart’s content. July 5, 1944, was the first interrogation and the next day the session of the naval Court.28 The sentence for him and his fellow prisoner Professor Rutgers was pronounced on July 6 and ratified on July 21, 1944, by the Wehrmachtsbefehlhaberin den Niederlanden:
It is not necessary to elaborate on the fact that such attempts at unauthorised departure from the occupied Dutch territory must be prevented in these circumstances. The court therefore considered the amount of 2 years in prison for both defendants to be necessary. However, in view of their confession, it seems reasonable to credit the defendants Baas Becking and Rutgers with 2 months of pre-trial detention each.
The day before the trial, Mrs. Niekerk was in Utrecht. Baas Beckings Personalakten contains a receipt signed by Mrs. Niekerk on July 5, 1944 for the documents that she had brought with her for Baas Becking: “A notebook, a pencil, a book: The Formation of Rocks, a book The General Chemistry of High Polymeric Substances, 2 journals.” Marineoberstabsrichter Karl Helmut Sieber wrote on the receipt, “Gegen Ausländischen keinen Bedenken” [No objection to foreigners]. The notebook was apparently the ledger, which Mrs Niekerk had given him earlier in Haaren. After he was transferred to Utrecht it was apparently sent back to her. On July 7, 1944, Mrs. Niekerk was given permission to speak to him for 15 minutes. In the following weeks she visited him twice, on July 25 (25 minutes) and on August 11 (30 minutes). On July 25 she was accompanied by Henri Derx. On the Sprecherlaubnis [Admission ticket] it is noted that two more books were handed over to Baas Becking.
On August 29, 1944, Baas Becking and Rutgers were taken handcuffed to the station in Utrecht. Rutgers was in “high spirits”, joking and laughing throughout the trip to Cleves. The Haftanstalt in Kleve, Germany, served as a shelter for transported prisoners. There, in the courtyard, they saw each other for the last time on August 30. Victor Rutgers was put on transport to Bochum, to a prison that took in convicted Dutch people. He died there on February 5, 1945, as a result of ill treatment and poor health. Unlike Rutgers, Baas Becking was not transferred to a prison on August 30, 1944, but to the Siegburg Zuchthaus near Bonn, on the east side of the Rhine.29
In 1984 Mrs. Niekerk remembered that when Baas Becking was transferred to Siegburg, his books, “including the manuscript Geobiology”, were sent to her by Sieber. “I copied the writing entirely by hand, because I thought it was too valuable to exist in a copy.” Baas Becking took this copy with him when he went to the Dutch East Indies in September 1945.
On October 30, 1944, he arrived in the German disciplinary centre Siegburg. He was registered and put to work as a nurse in the Arbeitslager of the Rheinische Metallwerk in Porz. Sometime later he was discharged, “because he refused to propose as ‘fit to work’ those comrades which were sick.” Afterwards he did “the hardest labour in the factory (especially at night) until almost dying of neglect and heart trouble.” In January 1945 he worked as a medic in the “so called hospital” of the Siegburg prison with the Dutch physician and fellow prisoner Fridjof B. Heberlein. He nearly died of typhus.
On April 10, 1945, the prisoners in Siegburg were liberated by the American 1st Army. Together with Dr. Heberlein he was put in charge of the Displaced Persons Camp until May 25, 1945, when he was repatriated to the Leiden Elisabeth Hospital. However, neither his position as head of the DP Camp nor the effects of the typhus epidemic prevented Baas Becking from compiling a report, The Typhus Epidemic at Siegburg Penitentiary in 1945, during the five weeks of quarantine, which described the miserable conditions in the penitentiary.30 According to the Typhus Epidemic report, on a population of 1,920, persons in the period January 1 till May 25, 1945, 1,081 (56 %) were infected and 281 (15 %) died. On 30 May 1945, he wrote in the Leiden hospital in his manuscript of Geobiology, after his earlier note on the spread of typhus: “Had I only known!”
Return to The Dutch East Indies (1945)
It is likely that Baas Becking had decided in 1943 to return after the war to Buitenzorg and give up his Professorship in Leiden. In a letter to his colleague the zoologist C.J. van der Klaauw he wrote: “I had better go. I will go too. Without any bitterness or resentment or hurt. If I am not present, you will feel freer. The world is big enough for me.” Van der Klaauw had told Baas Becking that it had been “more pleasant” for him and his colleagues Lam and Boschma, when he was in the Dutch East Indies.31 Another argument to leave Leiden was that in 1945 he was dissatisfied with the lenient treatment of his collaborating colleagues. He demanded stricter sanctions and was “fierce and wanted to hang all weaklings”, according to Professor van Arkel. Another colleague characterised Baas Becking afterwards as, “a very fascinating figure, a great organiser, with far reaching hobbies and a great urge to expand, but he no longer fitted in here.”32
After a few weeks’ stay in the hospital, he received a telegraphic request from the Lieutenant Governor-General Van Mook “to go immediately to Java in the service of Evacuation of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees.” On September 10, 1945, he flew as a colonel of the Royal Netherlands-Indies Army (KNIL) from Brentwood in Essex to the Allied headquarters of the South East Asia Command (S.E.A.C.) in Ceylon. As an officer of the Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees (RAPWI) service, he travelled with the Dutch troop ship Plancius to Priok. There he arrived on October 2, 1945. His 20 year old son Dick, who had been during the Japanese occupation for three years an inmate of the boy’s camp Tjimahi, described how he saw his father again, after an absence of five and a half years: “3 October: Colonel L.G.M. Baas Becking runs into his stunned son in Tjideng! Father is completely O.K.!!!!! 4. October: I go with father to the “Plancius”, where the head of the Int. Red Cross, section Netherlands, admits me to this honourable institution and, in spite of my vehement protests, gives me the rank of sergeant. 5. October: I arrive at the military hospital and am put to work in the laboratory.”33
Baas Becking’s Family
Baas Becking’s wife Rabina and his 15 year old daughter Daya were at that time in the Tjideng hospital. They spent the years of the Japanese occupation in several womens camps. In her autobiography Daya described the cruelty of the sadistic captain Kenichi Sonei, the hunger and the diseases.34 Her account evokes admiration for her mother Rabina, who despite her poor health was an example of stability for her daughter and her fellow prisoners. September 9, 1945, Rabina heard that her son Jan Matthias had died of “pellagra” on April 4, 1945, in the Mariso prisoner of war camp, south of Makassar (Sulawesi). Two days later Dick received a desperate letter from his sister that their mother was in the hospital with severe jaundice, she weighed 32 kg. Dick was discharged from the Tjimahi camp and travelled with 16 boys in a train carriage of the Japanese military police to Batavia. In November 1945 Rabina weighed 38.1 kg. In December 1945 she repatriated with her son and daughter on the ship Oranje to the Netherlands.
Baas Becking remained on Java, giving priority to his work as head of the RAPWI mobile teams. In May 1946, during a short stay to recruit nurses in The Netherlands, he gave a lecture entitled What Women have done and can still do in the East Indies.35 The speech, which is couched in swollen, patronising words, reads like a failed attempt to share his family’s wartime experience in the East Indies. It is not very convincing: emotions expressed in empty terms. In doing so, he unintentionally and in a shrill and tragic way, demonstrated the emotional distance that had been created between him and his family by their war experiences. The mutual sharing of the traumatic war events was apparently not possible. In December 1946, Rabina in Leiden described their family friend Huib van Mook, at that time the highest authority in the Dutch Indies, the isolation in which she and her husband found themselves:
After all those years of not seeing Lou, and then hardly seeing him, I increasingly feel that being with him might help with his work. Indirectly, of course, and not at all scientifically, but as a kind of blockade against excessive aspirations and excessive wild ideas, or like a clothes brush smoothing its feathers, or a gramophone record repeating “come, come” and “tut, tut.” In clearer words, I love him (perhaps) too much - in any case I am sorry that he confuses and stifles himself with impatience in his many talents. Huib, if you think this is worthwhile and if you have confidence in me in this respect, could/will you give me permission to go to Buitenzorg.36
In 1947 she was for some time in Buitenzorg, but returned to Holland and rented a house in Bilthoven where she lived with Daya until June 1949 when they came with him to Noumea.
Chairman Coordination Committee Scientific Research 1945-1946
Upon his return in Batavia Baas Becking took up the coordination of the agricultural, veterinary, chemical research institutes, experimental stations and laboratories, although the coordination committee was not earlier officially installed than in March 1946.37 Many institutions were after the Japanese period partly destroyed or plundered, personnel were traumatised or died in camps. At Java institutes and experimental stations were in Republican territory and inaccessible to the Dutch personnel. In a first meeting early December 1945, the agenda items were the temporary relocation of activities outside Java and the availability of skilled staff.38 According to Baas Becking, “the scientific staff of all institutes should be subordinate to the coordinating body.” His motivation was that the best scientific personnel were being bought out by the private sector: “Are we to help these people in scientific matters, which have the preconceived goal of not letting the results benefit the community?” For Baas Becking, the plan approved by the Volksraad in 1940 was the blueprint of his policy. In his actions he brushed aside the objections of the Ondernemingsraad in Holland in 1940. Without adequately informing the companies or the Ondernemingsbond, the Indian counterpart of the Ondernemingsraad, he visited private experimental stations and promised employees scholarships for training abroad. In March 1946 there was a meeting of the Ondernemingsbond with deputy Governor-General Van Mook, in which Baas Becking’s interference in the private experimental stations was indignantly rejected: “We did not call him, but Koningsberger, because he is better on this point.” His defense was, that his intention had always been to provide “service.” He was convinced that “he had been working for the common good.”39 Victor Koningsberger arrived in July 1946 for a period of 4 months as a representative of the private sugar companies. During his mission he ensured better relations between the Dutch-Indies government and the private sector.40 This virtually ended Baas Becking’s role in coordinating scientific research in the Dutch East Indies. In 1947 he was no longer chairman, but a member of the committee.
RAPWI Mobile Teams (1945-1946)
Early 1946 Baas Becking also set up the first Medical Inspection and Mobile Team, working under the auspices of the RAPWI. His activities in 1946 were focused almost exclusively on the mobile teams, which intended to provide outpatient health care for the indigenous population. By mid-February 1946, he had formed a small organisation of volunteers. The teams were working in the area controlled by the Republik Indonesia. During a stay of a Dutch parliamentary commission in April 1946, Baas Becking made his 59th journey there: “He was always received with open arms, by the extremists included, who apparently gratefully accepted good nursing, even from Dutch people.”41 Since April 1946, Baas Becking’s teams worked together with the Netherlands Red Cross in Indonesia. Cooperation with the Red Cross however, was difficult, because he interfered with food distribution and everything the Red Cross had to do with. He was known as a troublemaker, but he was appreciated by his military team. Victor Koningsberger spoke in September 1946 about “the passion and bravery with which my colleague Baas Becking organised and led the mobile teams.” The outpatient clinics of the mobile teams, at its peak sixteen, were visited between March 1946 and March 1948 by 2,500,000 people, who underwent approximately 3,500,000 treatments.42 As of January 1, 1947, he was relieved of his duties by Van Mook, probably because of the recurring disagreements with the Red Cross workers, but also because he neglected his duties in the Botanic Garden at Buitenzorg. However, he remained a member of the board of the Dutch Red Cross, section Indonesia, until October 1948. In July 1947 he wrote to physicist and philosopher Professor J. Clay in Amsterdam: “You know that the Dutch East Indies government looked with sorrow at all my social and coordinating work and that Buitenzorg was actually a kind of penal garrison for me.”43
Botanic Garden Buitenzorg (1947-1948)
After the Japanese attack on the American marine bases at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, most of the Dutch staff members of the Garden institutes were registered as military. In March 1942 the Japanese invaded Java, the Botanic Garden came under Japanese control. The Japanese had strict orders to leave Buitenzorg intact. The Botanic Garden was given a Japanese management of professional botanists, who ensured that some of the Dutch scientists, who were held as prisoners of war, could return to Buitenzorg. The plant taxonomist Kees van Steenis and his wife were allowed to work during the day in the Herbarium; each night Kees stayed in the POW camp outside the Buitenzorg Botanic Garden. Jacoba Ruinen also remained in Buitenzorg, she worked in the Treub Laboratory and acted as a liaison for the wives and children who were imprisoned in the women camps.44
After the Japanese surrender, August 15, 1945, the Botanical Garden complex lay in Indonesian Republican territory. In December Buitenzorg came under control of the British army, but a part of the institutes remained under Republican control. Baas Becking was mostly absent due to his RAPWI work. Kees van Steenis took care of his duties, through intensive contact with the English brigade commander and support from staff members.45 This did not prevent that valuable material was destroyed and theft and plundering of the institutions continued. In November 1946, Buitenzorg came under Dutch military control, but an attempt to bring all the institutes under Dutch control failed, because the government in Batavia forbade it.
Staff of the Buitenzorg Botanic Garden (Java), December 1947. From left to right: Mrs. M.C. Vreede (Treub lab.), Mrs. E. Bakker-Beer, C.L.L.H. van Woerden (hortulanus), Dr. M.A. Donk (mycologist), Dr. M.A. Lieftink (entomologist), unknown, Dr. B. Hubert, Dr. A. Diakonoff (entomologist), Dr. R. Sinia, Dr.Ir. H.G. Derx (Treub lab.), Dr. J.D.F. Hardenberg (fishery biologist), unknown, Rabina Baas Becking-Haverman, Dr. A.C.V. van Bemmel (zoologist), Lourens G.M. Baas Becking, Dr. L. van der Pijl (botanist), Dr. K.B. Boedijn (mycologist), Dr. J. Reuter (zoologist), Mr Bakker (FAO), Dr J.A. Frahm-Leliveld (cytologist), Dr. M.A. van Raalte (plant physiologist), Dr. J. van der Vecht (plant pathologist), Dr. S. Bloembergen (botanist), Dr. L.J. Toxopeus (entomologist), Dr. L.C.P. Kerling (mycologist), Dr. K.F. Vaas (fishery biologist). Photo Tropenmuseum (NMvW) Amsterdam, inventarisnummer: ALB-2210.
Andrew Goss gave a short summary of Baas Becking return in 1947 in Buitenzorg as director of the Garden and its institutes: “He tried to take up where he had left off in 1940”.46 This is also evident in his oration The Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens and Community, held May 18, 1947, in which he claimed that “the structure proposed for these institutes in 1940 […] has not been disturbed and is still present in the spirit of virtually everyone.” However, he miscalculated the spirit and political developments. He stuck to exalted ideas of the position of Buitenzorg as an international scientific centre: “Our problem is no problem of race or nation. We only have to respect the dignity of science and to take good care that only competent authorities preside over it. Because the responsibility we have to bear is too great to allow any dabbling with the international academic status of the workers for extraneous reasons. And the whole world will certainly agree with this aim.”47 The competent authorities and workers he referred to, were the all white staff of the Buitenzorg Botanic Garden, as can be seen on the photo that was made in December 1947.
He was making no serious effort to recruit new Indonesian scientific personnel, because “the Indonesians cannot yet stand on their own two feet.”48 Moreover, in 1946, Mrs. Niekerk, as an honorary external secretary of the coordination committee in Leiden, recruited Dutch scientific personnel for Buitenzorg.49 In this context his words in the oration: “To our Indonesian friends we are exclaiming: ‘Let us join forces’. Let us not deliberate too long, let us arrive at deeds”, come across as insincere and implausible. Personally, Baas Becking favoured a highly unrealistic International and Internationalised Centre of Tropical Research at Buitenzorg. In a confidential document he described an international protectorate of 10,000 km2 under control of the United Nations, “with its own government and its own police”, and “an open emphasis upon the impartiality of sciences.”50
In July 1947 after a major military offensive (‘first police action’), all institutes of the Botanic Garden came under Dutch control. The Dutch newspaper Het Parool reported September 4, 1947:
In Buitenzorg, heavy pressure is being exerted to get the civil servants to resume work. Prof. Baas Becking, director of the Botanic Garden in Buitenzorg, played a particularly active role in this. He threatened his staff with expatriation to Bantam and claimed that this was a general government order. “We ignore government orders that do not suit us”, said Mr. Baas Becking literally. “There is no question that I have to obey the central authority. For two years I have always been one step ahead of the government, afterwards they always agree. When there is talk in Batavia, there must be men who persevere.”
It demonstrates Baas Becking’s lack of diplomatic tact, which made him unfit to run the Botanic Garden under the Indonesian Republican authority after 1949. He resigned when he was informed, that he could only stay after the expiry of his contract in October 1948, under the condition that he “devoted himself entirely to his scientific work.”51
Deputy Chairman Research Council South Pacific Commission
Baas Becking’s deputy chairmanship of the Research Council of the South Pacific Commission (SPC) is another tragical intermezzo in his personal life and professional career. At the Second Session of the commission in Sydney in October 1948, the commission unanimously decided to offer him the appointment, which he accepted October 28, 1948. The commission was “a consultive and advisory body on matters affecting the welfare of the peoples of the non-self governing territories in the South Pacific.” Baas Becking defined the role of the research council as “relating to the economic development, social development and hygiene of the area.”52 It had its headquarters in Noumea, French New Caledonia.
From February to mid-April 1949 Baas Becking and the three full time members of the research council, visited New Zealand, Fiji, Western and Eastern Samoa, Dutch and Papua New Guinea and Australia. They consulted authorities, organisations and specialists. Schools and hospitals were visited. In his opening address, at the first meeting of the research council in Noumea on April 30, 1949, he asked the question, “What is the role of the white man in this region?” He mentioned the importance of independent science for the implementation of practical measures. The core of his view was that culture cannot be transplanted, for its roots are too deep in history: “Civilisation is the material expression of culture. We have therefore to ask ourselves: which are the elements of Western civilisation that can be grafted upon existing local culture in order that the happiness of the natives may be promoted?” Thus, his answer to the question was Eurocentric and recalls the Dutch Ethical Policy for the welfare of its colonial subjects. He called the mission of his research council a “superannuated ‘mission civilisatrice.’”
In Noumea however, the romance of international diplomacy and the lofty academic perspectives, were in shrill contrast with the daily reality. He was the manager of a team of eight geographically dispersed persons, in a bureaucratic organisation with small budget, on a faraway tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. There, Baas Becking’s visionary ideals gave way to the sadness of “intellectual starvation”. In July 1949 he wrote: “There are a number of things that bother me a lot here. The main thing is that I cannot do any research myself and that I am only allowed to administer. That’s not for me. I believe it is better that I look for another job (July 26, 1949).”53
In July 1949 his wife Rabina and daughter Daya arrived at Noumea. They settled in a Quonset hut, left by the Americans after the war, situated in a coconut grove opposite the beach. August 27, 1949, Rabina stood near the front wall of the Quonset hut when Daya, with her father as her instructor in the seat next to her, put their new deep red Willys Jeepster into the first gear. The car went straight into her mother. Rabina died one day later. Baas Becking wrote to the Van Mook family: “Bine hardly suffered at all. She was given morphine after only four minutes. We are now going on a long journey to Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and then Oakland. I had to do it anyway in November. […] We are still too dull to realise anything.”54
Returned from the trip to Australia in November 1949, the British senior commissioner of SPC, Sir Brian Freeston, interfered with his presence at the International Botanical Congress in Stockholm in 1950, as not “in the interest of the non-self governing etcetera’s.”55 William Douglass Forsyth, the secretary-general of the commission, told Baas Becking that he had to pay for the trip himself: “This means that I cannot buy a van and have to save for Daya and for myself to go to Dick’s wedding.” He had to cancel the journey and did not attend the Congress and the marriage of his son Dick with Solvig de Sitter in Leiden. In February 1950 the relationship with Forsyth worsened: “Now I have honestly tried to enter into a partnership with the secretary-general, but his statement, immediately following my offer, was that of complete supremacy of the secretariat. Now, if this really is a question of the personalities, I think it must be unfortunate if we would make the commission unpopular by internal disagreements.” One month later he decided to resign, “In order to prevent all harm to the commission, because of my physical condition, which is not brilliant.” Daya opposed all these plans, “chiefly because she wants me to make this a success. But I feel that I cannot do much good here anymore.”56
Senior Scientist in Australia (1950-1963)
In September 1950 Baas Becking resigned as deputy chairman of the research council. After his decision to leave the council, his network of friends and colleagues helped him. In America, he enquired with his friends Frans Verdoorn and Frits Went, the son of his former mentor in Utrecht, but eventually he preferred to go to Australia. A return to the Netherlands was no option for him. In October 1950 he was asked by the Dutch Government for a study to set up a biological station for pure scientific research in Dutch New Guinea. He accepted the assignment, but because he found a position in Sydney, he did not conduct the study.57
In September 1950 Alan Burges, Professor of Botany at the University of Sydney, offered him an honorary research Professorship in the Department of Botany, which he accepted. In 1951 and 1952 he gave two courses for first year students, each of six weeks.58 His notes and drafts of the lectures are preserved in the Adolph Basser Library Manuscript Collection of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. His experimental work for the university, on the effect of herbicides on plant growth, was paid by Timbrol industrial and fine chemicals. Timbrol paid him and two assistants 2,500 Australian dollars per year.59
In December 1950 he recommended Timbrol to include Franz Moewus in the Team.60 Moewus and his wife Liselotte had arrived in November 1950 in the Botany Department of Sydney University. In the manuscript of Geobiology (1953) Baas Becking referred with admiration to Moewus’s controversial experiments: “If one has had the privilege, like the author, to see Frans Moewus performing Chlamydomonas, one is amazed at the complexity of the behaviour of these unicellular algae and of the physical and chemical factors controlling their various coordination’s with the environment.” Moewus and his wife joined the staff of the Botany Department as Timbrol research fellows. When he left the Timbrol Team in February 1953, Baas Becking wrote his former employer: “I feel that herbicide research still holds many mysteries, and I have to congratulate you upon the furthering of the work of Dr. F. Moewus and Mrs. L. Moewus. We all feel that the presence of these excellent biologists should not fail to be of great influence on the scientific development of this research.”
In 1953 the Fisheries Laboratory of Commonwealth Scientific a nd I ndustrial R esearch O rganisation (CSIRO) offered him a research position as a hydro-biologist (“senior fellowship”) in Cronulla, New South Wales. To Mrs. Niekerk in Leiden he confessed: “It is a ‘young man’s job’ and I can do it as long or short as I like, but ‘I got to pay the butcher and the baker.’”61 There his research dealt with the microbial origin of the sulphur nodules in Lake Eyre.62 He also published with D. Moore and I.R. Kaplan a series of nine articles (1955-1957) on biological processes in estuarine environments, in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences.
He worked in the Division of Fisheries at CSIRO until 1957, then he moved to the Bureau of Mineral Resources in Canberra to concentrate upon the part that microorganisms might play in the syngenetic deposition of minerals. During his last three years this became a joint research project supported by the Australian Mining Industry Research Association as well as the Bureau of Mineral Resources and CSIRO. Baas Becking moved his laboratory to the Division of Plant Industry in CSIRO Canberra, where he worked in close collaboration with Dr. John Falk. Here he was able to pursue further some of the imaginative ideas which he always had. In August and September 1959, he was active as a field researcher in Papua New Guinea, where he studied, with volcanologist G.A. Taylor, the volcanic waters in New Britain. There he realised that it was “a privilege to be a naturalist.”63 His detailed geothermal observations and beautiful sketches of the active volcano Tavurvur and the environments of Rabaul, Talasea, Pangulu and the island of Lolobau, are kept in the Adolph Basser Library collection of the Australian Academy of Science.64
November 1948 was the last time Baas Becking visited the Netherlands. In 1956 his friends and colleagues invited him for a lecture tour in Holland and the United States.65 However, his poor health and perhaps feelings of resentment, withheld him. In his personal papers there are notes for short stories that give an idea of both his penchant to the romantic and also of his turbulent and gloomy state of mind. A romanticised memory of the five year old Lou in his grandparent’s doctor’s house in Veenendaal, is a charming short story. Grandfather’s House describes his mother’s Berkhout family and contains many autobiographical elements, probably partly taken from the stories of his mother. Other notes concern a futuristic novel Zero minus Five, in which celestials are in contact with humans. It is a bitter even cynical reflection on humanity of a disappointed solitary man.
The last years of his life Baas Becking had serious health problems. In 1960, after his stay in New Britain, he underwent surgery for a non-malignant tumour on the bladder. He had also problems with his heart. Later he suffered an attack that made it impossible for him to speak. Nevertheless, he remained active as a researcher. In the Library of the Australian Academy of Science there are many notes for a book on water for Elsevier Publishing Co. In August 1961 however, he felt “the load is somewhat heavy”, and therefore suggested his former collaborators Ian P. Kaplan and Derek Moore, that they join in the publishing of the book. With his death one and a half year later however, this project ended.66
Since he lived in Cronulla, Baas Becking was taken care of by his housekeeper, Mrs. Ennie Bombeeck, who married him, according to his daughter Daya, “at his insistence”, in 1961. He died in Canberra January 6, 1963.
In 1965 John F. Falk, of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, wrote Dick Baas Becking that “a research group on biological influences in the formation of minerals, and related topics, following leads opened up by his father”, was established in the new laboratory building of the Bureau of Mineral Resources in Canberra. The group was called “The L.G.M. Baas Becking Biogeological Research Group (or Laboratory).”67
THREE VERSIONS OF GEOBIOLOGY
History of the Manuscripts
In August 1951 Baas Becking wrote to his friend Frans Verdoorn, founder and editor of Chronica Botanica in Waltham (USA), about the history of his Geobiologie since 1934:
The old book (a mere skit) of 1934 only gave a point of view. Since then, I have had considerable field experience, many Leyden students worked on problems connected with milieu, which we promptly buried either in the Recueil or in the Academy Proceedings. I have had a fine time in Leyden. I was happy there; I wish I could do justice to the work that was performed there by so many workers. There are reams of stuff that have remained unpublished. I had hoped to gather this material into a series of Essays on Geobiology.68
That Geobiologie should be seen as a brief comedy show, is an ironic characterisation. With “mere skit”, Baas Becking probably referred to the laymen who attended his lectures on the “connection between organisms and the earth” for the Diligentia Society in The Hague where he entertained his audience in the winter 1933/34. No doubt Baas Becking took his task seriously. The role and responsibility of the biologist in society was a theme that had occupied him much longer. In 1928 he had written a polemical essay in De Gids in which he portrayed the gap between natural sciences and humanities as a contrast between “arguing Athenians in the marketplace and Boeotians with hand on the plough.”69 Lectures for a wider audience than just academics were a means for Baas Becking to bridge that gap and to emancipate his fellow scientists. One year before his lectures on geobiology in The Hague, Baas Becking and his colleague, the cultural historian Johan Huizinga, organised a lecture cycle Worldview and Science around 1700 in the Leiden Botanical Laboratory. The evening lectures were also intended for a wide audience of students and other interested parties:
To show to those who practice the humanities how natural science has become an integral part of our modern civilisation, and to those who practice natural science, how much that development in nature and direction was influenced by religious, philosophical and social currents.
In 1928 Baas Becking had agreed with a publisher to write a series of essays in which his Utrecht inaugural lecture would be further elaborated. However, he made no progress. In February 1930 he wrote confidentially to his mentor F.A.F.C. Went that he needed more time for a better understanding of “milieu”. He explained: “More and more I come to the realisation that my specialty must lie in the field of the milieu; a modern ecology that has to take into account physical and chemical factors.” A year later, in January 1931, he elaborated on milieu in his inaugural lecture Gaia or Life and Earth. Like his 1927 Utrecht inaugural address On the Universality of Life, he was inspired by Henderson (1913), Goldschmidt (1922), Vernadsky (1924) and Lotka (1924). Three years later in Geobiologie, he published his views still more expanded.
It was Baas Becking’s ambition to transform Geobiologie, into a manual for an academic audience. According to Jacoba Ruinen, who worked in Leiden under his supervision on her PhD thesis (1933) and accompanied Baas Becking and his wife to Buitenzorg in 1939 as his assistant, “he had been working since 1933 on a more extensive and very detailed set-up of the thoughts developed in Geobiologie. A draft of several chapters with illustrations and tables accompanied him to Buitenzorg in 1939. However, this concept remained in its entirety behind in Indonesia when Baas Becking flew to the Netherlands in March 1940.”70 It was preserved in the Buitenzorg Botanic Garden during the Japanese occupation and used for his revision of Geobiology after the war in Indonesia and Australia.
During the war years that he was forced to spend in the Netherlands, Baas Becking kept to his intention to write a thorough scientific treatise on geobiology. In July and August 1944, within seven weeks in the Kriefswehrmachtgefängnis in Utrecht, he produced a manuscript Geobiology, “written in English because the author had to choose another language than Dutch to avoid duplication of work and because he had insufficient command of the German idiom.” Unfortunately, there are no documents or schemes that illustrate how and when he prepared the framework of Geobiology: its division into 10 chapters and 76 sections and its further subdivision into paragraphs. The framework is characteristic for his top down approach of biological problems: coherence becomes clear when the total system in which that coherence takes place is broken down into smaller parts. In Geobiology this approach is demonstrated in the structure of all the chapters of the treatise. In its totality, Geobiology gives an impression of a work under construction whose foundation and structure are nevertheless clearly visible. Some of the paragraphs were completely filled in with text, while others only contained text fragments or keywords. Several paragraphs were only brought up by a heading.
Although Baas Becking wrote on the title page of the Geobiology manuscript “without the aid of literature”, he had access to several books and probably the 1934 edition of Geobiologie and his own notes, which he had made during the preceding years in the Netherlands. The books mentioned on the receipt were Correns (1939). Die Entstehung der Gesteine, ein Lehrbuch der Petrogenese and Mark (1940). The General Chemistry of High Polymeric Substances. It is very probable that he also had Clarke (1916). The Data of Geochemistry at his disposal during his stay in the Utrecht prison. There are many references to Clarke in Geobiology. Baas Becking referred since his inaugural address in 1927 from the third edition of this handbook. The Data of Geochemistry remained an ever present source of information for him until the end of his life. Possibly he also could use Chibnall (1939). Protein Metabolism in Plants. In Geobiology he referred extensively to the research of Marie Antoinette van Overeem. Probably a copy of her thesis On Green Organisms Occurring in the Lower Troposphere (1937) was available.
After the war Baas Becking took a typescript of the hand written manuscript of Geobiology, made by Mrs. Niekerk-Blom after she received the handwritten manuscript from the German prison authority in Utrecht, to the Dutch East Indies in September 1945. There he worked on the revision of Geobiology in addition to his work as a RAPWI colonel organising Red Cross mobile medical teams in Java (until the end of 1946) and his directorate of the botanical garden in Buitenzorg (until December 1948). In November 1948 before his departure to French New Caledonia, he was for a short time in the Netherlands. He was quoted in the Dutch newspaper Trouw: “I am here with a government assignment, namely to finish my book on geobiology, based on field and laboratory research over the last 20 years.”71 The draft version of the revised and updated Geobiology was completed in Sydney in 1951, one year after he had resigned from the Research Council. In October 1951 he sent the manuscript to Chronica Botanica, the publishing house of his friend Frans Verdoorn in Waltham (USA).
This version of Geobiology, is more complete than the 1944 version, although the 239 figures are lacking. However, with exception of the chapters on water, symbiosis and the (destructive) role of man on his environment, most of the remaining chapters have the character of a college manual. The text is largely descriptive. Moreover, the endless summing up of information in paragraphs sometimes seems more like an urge to be complete and not as a means to explain a process of a phenomenon. Baas Becking’s editor Frans Verdoorn wrote:
You may feel that you have a book which forms one, single, organic unit, which cannot be broken up properly in three parts, but this is not true. While all of your manuscript deals with “Geobiology”, the components are of different types:
1) There are chapters (as chapters 1-3) which read like Distinguished-University-Guest-Speaker-Lectures, brilliant, but sketchy, miscellaneous, and sometimes pleasantly and cleverly anecdotal, just as such lectures have to be as time does not permit to deal fully with the subject which is also not the purpose of such a series of lectures.
2) There are chapters (5-8), which read like regular University Lectures, fairly detailed, as a textbook.
3) There is one chapter (4: Water) which is a masterful memoir of the international monograph type.
In my opinion, if we throw these three types of chapters together in one large tome, the result will be an uneven, unwieldy book and I suggest that your material be somewhat revised for publication in three parts.
In this review of the Geobiology manuscript, Verdoorn ignored the novelty of Baas Becking’s understanding of symbiosis in Chapter VII. Chapter VIII on Man is also more than a regular university lecture. In the 1953 edition of Geobiology, this chapter has been stripped of the emotional eruptions that set the tone of this chapter in 1944. It is a long discourse in which the concept of symbiosis on man’s relationship with his environment is analysed in detail. It is a thorough biological foundation of the Gaia concept that Baas Becking’s work had developed since his Utrecht inaugural lecture in 1927. In March 1954 Baas Becking wrote to Verdoorn that he, “while impressed with the shortcomings of his own works, prefers, nevertheless, to see it published as a whole.” As we mentioned in the above, Geobiology, updated until 1953, was not published in part or as a whole.
My friend Marcel Donze, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Aspects of Civil Engineering (Technical University Delft), who prepared a digital version of the 1953 manuscript from my 830 scans, remarked in 2019:
There is no doubt that Baas Becking was a many sided scientist. He may be ranked as a first class scientist, judged by his creative work in a number of specialisms. In addition, he had much wider interests, and speculated as well as formed opinions about many subjects, without thorough knowledge. In his 1953 manuscript he tried to synthesise his vast knowledge and experience, aspiring completeness. This aspiration is one of the causes of the differences in quality over the whole manuscript.
Baas Becking’s documents in the archives of the Australian Academy of Science show that after the rejection of his manuscript he still made an attempt to publish a revised version of Chapter IV Water under the title Water in Biological Processes and later as The Realm of Water. This attempt also failed, probably because of his poor health. In the Australian archive there is a document with the title A System of Symbiotic Relations, a slightly updated version of Chapter VII on symbiosis in the 1953 manuscript of Geobiology. Unfortunately, this manuscript has not found a publisher either. Yet at the end of his life, Baas Becking published a paper Geology and Microbiology (Baas Becking, 1959) in which he outlined in 34 paragraphs the microbiological aspects of geology. It is a summary of many topics also covered in Geobiology and therefore a kind of key that gives access to the two unpublished versions of his intended handbook Geobiology. Baas Becking’s conclusion recapitulated his achievement in geobiology since his inaugural address On the Universality of Life in 1927.
In any work involving sediments, recent or ancient, in any study of aqueous or atmospheric environments, we now realise fully that we have to take vital phenomena into consideration. Just as organic biochemistry has given great impetus to bacteriology in the study of the internal milieu of the microbes, there is an inorganic biochemistry which has to describe the geochemical reactions taking place on this earth in relation to the activity of its microbes. I am convinced that such a biochemical approach will be profitable.
Comparison of three versions of Geobiology
In Table 1, the tables of content of the three versions of Geobiology are presented to illustrate the changes in the structure of the text and the additions over a period of twenty years. The early 1934 version of Geobiology was mainly focused on the environment of the organisms. In the two later versions these descriptions were integrated in a more mature, logical structure that reflected Baas Becking’s concept of geobiology, the interaction of organisms and milieu. So, Chapters III, IV and V in Geobiologie (1934) became part of Section 3 Milieu and Section 6 Influence of the Milieu upon Organisms in the 1944 version of Geobiology; Chapter VI Cycles became part of Section 7 Mutual Influence of the Organisms.
It is remarkable that Chapters VII, VIII, IX and IX on oligotrophic and eutrophic water types, oceans and brine in the 1934 version didn’t get a distinct place in the 1944 manuscript of Geobiology. In the 1953 version however, they are described and discussed in detail in Chapter IV Water. In that manuscript there is even a kind of travelogue included, in which salt works, and 22 desert lakes, hot springs and volcanic waters are enumerated and described, based on Baas Becking’s research in the later 1920s in California and in 1936 when he visited saltworks and saline waters in Portugal, India, Australia and the Dutch East Indies. In the 1944 version of Geobiology parts of his work and that of his students on halophytes are mostly only referred to, but hardly described. In 2011 Aharon Oren reviewed Baas Becking’s published papers on saline microorganisms in The Halophilic World of Lourens Baas Becking, which is besides that also a tribute to a remarkable scientist from a distinguished colleague (Oren, 2011).
Sections 7 Mutual Influence of Organisms and Section 8 Man and Terrestrial Milieu were additions to the text of Geobiologie. These Sections are introduced in the Section Baas Becking’s Scope of Geobiology.
Baas Becking at Work on Geobiology
In the 1944 manuscript of Geobiology Baas Becking usually recorded the date of the day of his entries. In total there are 123 items with a date in Geobiology. Baas Becking spent 45 days in the Utrecht prison in that period he recorded on 33 days that he inserted one or more entries. Figure 1 shows that the insertions of text were not planned according to chapter, but were carried out apparently randomly over the 76 sections of the pre-defined table of contents.
BAAS BECKING’S SCOPE OF GEOBIOLOGY
I know that I am talking about Gaia, the earth, as a living being. Maybe this is a form of pantheism and should, as such, be described. But was not everything marked down as heretical that ran counter to the make believe that left people to their greed and their breed?
Lourens Baas Becking (1942-1944), TheKingdom of the World
In this introduction, several central principles in Baas Becking’s biological thinking in Geobiology are explained on the basis of his previously and later published and unpublished work. It becomes clear that there is an evident relationship between his personal perceptions of life and his scientific views on life and earth.
Ptolomeic or Terrestrial Outlook of Biology
One of Baas Becking’s main inspirations for Geobiology was Lawrence Henderson’s, The Fitness of the Environment (1913). Already in his lecture On the Universality of Life (1927), he referred with approval to Henderson, who drew according to Baas Becking, attention to the reciprocity between life and the earth: “Life has nested on the earth and is so close to her that the biosphere is in the opposite view of the other layers of the earth’s crust”. In that lecture he characterised the approach to biological research as ‘Ptolomeic’, a description that he also used in 1944 in the introduction of the Utrecht manuscript of Geobiology (Section 1.6). In his handwritten notes of his lecture course General Physiology of the Cell in Utrecht (1927-1928), he made another reference to ‘Ptolomeic’:
Biology is still Ptolomeic, i.e. it is concerned with this thin varnish of living matter on our own Earth; all other biology is speculation. In this respect it is infinitely narrower than mathematics, which can abstract itself even from a cosmos, from physics which is also astrophysics, with chemistry which deals with compounds never seen in the earth, even narrower than geology in as far as it understands the mineralogy of the moon. It is however wider than both chemistry and physics because it has to study terrestrial conditions much more carefully.
In his inaugural lecture in Leiden, Gaia or Life and Earth in 1931, he further specified the ‘Ptolomeic’ approach of biology:
Biology is bound to the earth in such a way that all reflections on cosmic life, panspermia and the like still belong to the realm of pure hypothesis. Biology is therefore, bound to the Earth, a geocentric science, and especially where it describes and does not experiment. This seems, at first glance, to be an inevitable limitation. However, it is my conviction that this restriction, like so many others in natural science, is based on human prejudice.
In his notes for one of the last lectures of his university course in Utrecht, May 1928, we find under the heading Scope of Biology, a further reflection on the essence of biology:
The greatest limiting factor in the progress of this science of biology however, is man. Not in the trivial sense that man is only an imperfect tool, an unclean lens, but that every scientist is, consciously or subconsciously trying to arrive at an orderly cosmogony, which will satisfy himself. To satisfy himself means in the first place his feeling of safety and there is in biology not much to make him feel safe. This is, maybe, the reason why the concept of “miracle” has crept into biology by the way of the inapplicability of thermodynamics, that is maybe the reason an ‘élan vital’ or an “entelechy” have to assure us that all is well with the world.
‘Elan Vital’ and ‘Entelechy’
In his published and unpublished work Baas Becking referred with approval to the Swiss physicist C.E. Guye, who classified ‘life’ as a not-material category with its own properties. In his L’Evolution Physico-Chimique (1922), Guye asked the question, how is it possible to understand life, when the world is ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, which points towards death and annihilation? By using a probability calculation, he assumed that even the production of a protein molecule by random assembly of atoms has such a high degree of improbability, that we can consider its formation practically impossible. The argument was used by him to reject the mechanistic interpretation of life:
The biologist, at least until the end of the last century, dazzled by the success of physico-chemistry, quite often manifested a tendency to consider physiology as a physico-chemical outcome and was able as a philosopher, to believe that he is subject to determinism somehow unavoidable (Haeckel). […] We think on the contrary, although the current era is not particularly edifying in this respect, that the indisputable superiority of the human species compared with all species which are known to us, allows us to glimpse the possibility of a different evolution. If pity and justice apparently do not exist in the insect world, this does not prove that they should not exist in more evolved species and that this cannot even coincide, in a certain measure of course, with the general interest of a progressive evolution of humanity.72
Baas Becking apparently found his assurance in this concept, because in Section 4.1.2 of Geobiology he gave without restraint or relativity a description of Bergson’s ‘élan vital’ as “an enormous urge which presses every living thing to procreate, to make more of its sameness.” In Section 5.8.2, he expressed himself positive about Driesch’s entelechy concept, which indicated a life force conceived of as psychoid or “mind-like”, that is; non-spatial, intensive, and qualitative rather than spatial, extensive, and quantitative. In an unpublished lecture Forgotten Biology given in June 1951 in Sydney however, he expressed his ambivalence.73 Although he realised the importance of the conclusions and predictions of his scientific ancestors, “on the whole these historical achievements seem to care little. It develops, in a way, haphazardly and the efforts frequently dichotomise. Certain of these bifurcations continue to grow, while others are repressed, or become abortive.” In the lecture he mentioned “the antithesis between theorising and experimentation, between the inductive and the deductive mode of thinking.”
The “inductive school”, a long time linked with vitalism, had most sympathy from the philosophers. It survives in the modern typology of Troll, in the Holism of Smuts, in Hans Driesch’s “Organic Philosophy”. Still there is more than there was dreamt of in their philosophy. It is true that an experiment is a question put to Nature, and the answer may be more or less oracular, dependent upon the sense we put into our experimentation. The inductive biologist, however, is prone to act as “magister” rather than as “minister”, or better still “interrogator naturae”. He soon tires of the wearisome examination and goes back to his desk to create more systems.
The experimentalist at the other hand finds his support in the “purer” sciences and in pragmatic philosophy. He asks only what is the truth “today”. He tries to translate his results into chemistry, physics and mathematics. My respected teacher, Jacques Loeb, saw a future for biology in which the certainty of the results would equal those in chemistry and physics. However, the principle of uncertainty has entered in both chemistry and physics and, as living beings represent statistical populations of a much lesser magnitude than those met with in the molecular, the atomic or the electronic state. The individual freedom of the variant always leaves its hallmark upon the results.
At the end he remarked: “I have never been able to decide between the respective merits of synthetic or analytical thinking, or between those of a mechanistic - or a vitalistic attitude towards biology. In this I have good company.” Apparently however, the assumption or rejection of ‘synthetic thinking’ mattered much to him, as is evident in a contemptuous note in 1959 about John Burdon Sanderson Haldane’s remark in The Origins of Life (1954) that although “the full area of ignorance is not mapped, [he] did not see any necessity to falter and invoke ‘deus ex machina.’” Baas Becking angrily remarked “This is a supreme conceit LBB.” Furthermore he characterised the approach as “Quizz Kid” attitude: “clever and clever. Got all the answers, but science consists to ask questions of nature and if the questions are intelligent the answer will be intelligible. ‘What question should we put’?”74
Dissipation and the Entropy Lowering Capacity of Living Systems
In Section 6.1.1 Baas Becking described “the entropy lowering capacity of living systems.” It appeared to him that this capacity was “chiefly concerned with dissipation, rather than entropy.” In his Robert Mayer centennial lecture in November 1942, he discussed the concept of dissipation as a kind of physical analogue of entropy, thus trying to find an analogue of entropy as a way to explain life’s phenomena (Baas Becking, 1942a). In an unpublished manuscript written in 1945 or beginning 1946 he wrote:
The restriction that Clausius gave (1867) to the law of the conservation of energy of Robert Mayer (1842), by the introduction of the entropy concept is analogous to the restriction given by the concept of dissipation to the law of conservation of matter, or Lavoisier’s law. In analogy with Bolzmann we might state: While the amount of terrestrial matter is constant (with the restriction of the introduction of cosmic matter and of atomic disintegration) dissipation is on the increase. But while, in irreversible reactions, the entropy increases, and overall-entropy is increasing, living beings are able to cause a decrease in dissipation. Living beings may, selectively, change outer environment into inner environment.75
In 1948, in his curriculum vitae for the South Pacific Commission he characterised his “derivation of the concept of dissipation”, as one of the eight chief results of his professional career.
In his idea, the fundamental difference of material dissipation with entropy was, that the “human intellect as well as the living condition” were able to decrease the dissipation. In Section 6.1.1 of Geobiology he summarised his ideas and referred to the physicist Burgers, who disagreed with Baas Becking and maintained that the second law of thermodynamics also applied to the living world (Burgers, 1943). In his essay On the Determined and Undetermined in Biology, which Baas Becking submitted for publication in February 1944, two months before his failed attempt to escape to England, he maintained his stance and expressed his “feeling”, “that in living nature, there stands established a principle, which may be called the ‘unique event’, and that this event implies the presence, in this scheme of things, of a directive force” (Baas Becking, 1946b). Here the unique event was “a steep, local decrease of entropy, statistically smoothed out by a general decrease of the free energy level.” He deduced his “feeling” from Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft, in which a distinction is made between nature, which is only a complex of phenomena that conform to laws and at the same time laws that are not primarily inherent in nature, but are prescribed by our reason. Baas Becking came to the conclusion that:
The individual has the attribute of free will, the attribute Divine, the character of the continuous and of the infinite; the statistical ensemble is pre-destined, it is governed by chance (= law), it is based upon discontinuity and upon limitation.
Baas Becking typified himself in 1946 as, “I, who can connect no image and no gesture to God.”76 To characterise Baas Becking’s term ‘divinity’, it is therefore good to realise, that in his unpublished manuscripts he made a distinction between religiosity and commitment to a church or faith. Among the first was his deeply felt sense of God, while the human centred ‘ecclesiastic’ systems were part of the second category. The last was represented by the clergy, which he usually described disparagingly as is evident in Chapter VIII of Geobiology. His religious view of God, the world and humanity were described in The Kingdom of this World (Baas Becking, 1942-1943):
Only in the harmony of a living being with its environment we shall find our happiness. […] Happiness is however, chiefly in creation, in crystallising thought, in graphic representation, in music, in science. And happiness again, lies in the contemplation of what is beautiful, and all this happiness is not pagan felicity, it is pervaded by charity, it is pervaded by God, and one of God’s greatest manifestations is this earth, and he made us stewards over this earth, and the happiness should come from this earth, because God gave it to us as a dwelling-place. This is the Kingdom of this World.
Everything is Everywhere, but the Milieu Selects
In his 1948 curriculum vitae Baas Becking mentioned “Proof of the omnipresence of air borne organisms (selective milieu)”, as one of the chief results of his scientific work.77 This is a very brief and more limited description of his famous ‘ubiquity law’ as it was published in 1934 in Geobiologie and in Section 1.6.3 of the present Geobiology transcription. During all his professional career Baas Becking used the word ‘law’ for M.W. Beijerinck’s “inspiration from the belief that most microbes are omnipresent” (Baas Becking, 1959). From the contemporary perspective of the biogeographer of microorganisms however, it is better to speak about ‘hypothesis’ and to omit the word ‘dogma’ that is used by some authors.78 Already in 1927 in his inaugural lecture, On the Universality of Life, Baas Becking concluded: “Life is eternal, there is potential everywhere, the milieu selects, determines the form. The earth’s general standard is only a particular case.” In his inaugural oration in Leiden in 1931, Gaia or Life and Earth, he formulated:
The cosmopolitan occurrence of lower organisms, which gives us the basis for the study of external conditions, is curious enough to be elevated in ecology to a rule, to a law, to “the law of Beijerinck”. A law that says “everything is everywhere”. Everything is everywhere, and the milieu selects. The more extreme the milieu, the sharper the selection.
Baas Becking used ‘Milieu’ instead of ‘Environment’ in his English editions of 1944 and 1953, therefore Everything is Everywhere, but the Milieu Selects, is the version of the law that is authorised by Baas Becking. In Section 1.5 of Geobiology he gave a well-considered justification for his choice.79 In the 1953 typescript of Geobiology he specified the ‘ubiquity law’ in the introduction of a paragraph of 12 pages, The Distribution of Life on this Planet:
This holds both in nature and in the laboratory. The better defined the question, the sharper the answer. A very specific milieu, an extreme milieu (whether extreme in temperature, acidity or salt content) will sharply define a group of organisms occurring therein; whether bacteria, bluegreen algae, amoebae, flagellates or ciliates. But field ecology alone will never be able to give a complete answer as to the possible resonance of living systems and a given milieu; this answer is the prerogative of the laboratory.
To this day Baas Becking’s ubiquity law is cited and critically discussed in microbiological publications. Therefore, after almost 90 years the ubiquity statement still offers inspiration for the research of biogeography of microorganisms and contributed to our understanding of microbial evolution.80 Unfortunately Baas Becking’s unpublished versions of Geobiology were not available for the research of the past two decades on the origin of the hypothesis and its philosophical background. So, his concept of ‘Milieu’ was not involved in the discussion of his ubiquity law.81 Baas Becking’s perception of the ubiquity hypothesis was therefore not studied. In the manuscripts of Geobiology he tried to understand the underlying mechanisms for the patterns of diversity and distribution of microorganisms and which determining factors are involved in the spatial and temporal distribution. My friend Professor Marcel Donze rated Baas Becking’s ubiquity statement in 2019 after studying the 1953 manuscript of Geobiology:
Everything is everywhere, which is not true, is an emotional exaggeration and an expression of amazement that by inoculating a sterile and selective growth medium usually the same kind of microbe will show up, independent of the place on earth and the microenvironment where the inoculum was obtained. The environment selects statement, is implicit in the previous statement, as far as enrichment cultures are concerned. It is also largely consistent with the mass occurrence of microbes as found in the field. But this is a much more difficult field: experimentally difficult, since proof, as compared with illustration in single cases, is much harder to obtain, among others since in the field many more variables happen to be present. It is to be expected that the primary influence of these is to exclude species that would be expected according to the laboratory analogue, a secondary influence to allow mass growth of another, or more species. The general conclusion is that the combination of dispersion and survival under suboptimal to adverse conditions for growth combine such as to allow the presence of viable individuals under most circumstances on earth.
His assessment of the hypothesis corresponds with the conclusion of the symposium on The Importance of Being Small: does Size Matter in Biogeography that was held in Leiden in August 2009 (Fontaneto, 2011):
The Everything is Everywhere hypothesis focuses on one single explanatory factor, dividing organisms into two main groups, larger organisms with biogeography and smaller ones without biogeography. Given the complexity of the spatial patterns in microorganisms, it seems that their biogeography is more likely to depend on a complex set of interacting phenomena, in which size is of course important, but it is not the only driver. The differences between micro- and macro-organisms can thus be included in a gradient, disregarding the hypothesised abrupt threshold assumed by the Everything is Everywhere hypothesis.
Life and Death
Section 4.9.8, Death, in Geobiology (1944) was concluded by Baas Becking with the observation that for “the further analysis of death and the longevity of organisms the special literature should be consulted.” This he actually did in an unpublished lecture The Nature of Death for the Sydney University Biological Society in July 1953.82 His lecture is interesting not only because he disconnects animate and inanimate from the individual human experience, but also because he presents life as a continuous process. It clarifies his view on geobiological processes in which life and earth are each other’s countermoulds.
The continuity of life is maintained, in the majority of organisms, by its nuclear structures which continuously rejuvenated by the sexual process, form a quasi-eternal track, the germ-track or “Keimbahn”. In this immortality the importance of the individual is secondary; life is chiefly concerned with the maintenance of life as such.
Life is an improbable event. As Robert Bridges says; “it holds balance on a razor’s edge, that may not e’en be blunted, lest we sicken and die.” Tight rope walking, and bicycle riding do not represent systems in equilibrium. These actions might be described as “continuous attempts to avert continuous falls”. […] The self perpetuating pattern of life, with its combined free will and predestined trend, is something unique, it is not found elsewhere.
Life itself is a megachronic phenomenon, like the earth, the solar system and the universe. Life has fought on all planes, almost down to the leptochronic (the divisions given are more or less arbitrary). Death is nothing in itself. It is a term, describing the transition from the highest organisation form of matter to the molecular. Life is an intricate, developing pattern of molecules and ions, death is shapeless. […] Thus far life has been persistent on this planet. Let us hope that our species will not be a great contributary cause to the death of the thin and vulnerable green living veil of this earth; to sustain life is more precious than the cheap act of making life cease.
In his early work Baas Becking discussed non-terrestrial biology and the “ammonia chemistry” of Edward Curtis Franklin of Stanford University. Baas Becking called Franklin “a brilliant chemist, whose lectures I followed at Stanford University.”83 Evidently, liquid ammonia as an alternative substance of water, carrying colloidal and living substances in solution, was a topic that fascinated him during his professional life. In Geobiology he mentioned and discussed it in several paragraphs (Section 2.5.1 and 2.5.2). The ammonia chemistry was already discussed in his Inaugural Address at Utrecht University in 1927:
And it is the great merit of a man, with whom I had the privilege of dealing almost daily during the last six years, Edward Curtis Franklin of Stanford University, that he has projected a chemistry and worked out with tremendous experimental power; a chemistry wherein the liquid ammonia takes the place of the water in the general chemistry. Franklin has succeeded in creating an entire “ammono” system of acids and salts and bases. He has also been able to find the ammonia analogues of several “aqua-organic” substances. Ammonia is in many ways a liquid analogous to water, so similar to water that even Henderson gets scared of it. None other than Sir William Maddock Baylis admits the possibility of an “ammonia life”.84 Henderson rejects the possibility of ammonia as a life carrier and grounds his objections to the fact that ammonia has neither the anomaly expansion of water, and still stands on a sufficiently low level of free energy, the formation heat of water is ten times far greater than that of ammonia. Henderson calls this last “… an insurmountable obstacle to the substitution of ammonia for water in biological processes …”85
In Geobiology (1953) he remarked:
Liquid ammonia shows many special, extreme chemical and physical properties, only shared with water. It might create a suitable vital environment. There is no reason whatsoever why we could not experiment with ammonia systems at the temperatures of the corresponding state of the water system (-65 °C). In the atmospheres of the outer planets, we would meet a true “Franklinian” chemistry. Whether “Franklinonts” exists on these planets is a question of conjecture; but if life is an inevitable state of matter they should exist.
However, his plea for ammonium chemistry was unsuccessful. In December 1959 in Baas Becking’s last public address during the Symposium to Mark the Centenary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in Melbourne, he again brought Franklin’s ammonium chemistry to the attention of his audience.86 There he referred to his own experiment with ammonia in 1934:
Now for the first time I will confess a series of crazy experiments I performed with the help of a well-known physicist, more than twenty years ago. We prepared bacteriological culture media carefully translating the hydro-compounds into the ammono-compounds. The liquid phase was ammonia and the temperature was – [minus] 50 °C. We infected with desert dust, to have something alive and still uncontaminated. The infected cultures turned red. But the experiments broke down when we wanted to examine the cultures under the microscope. This we could perform only at room temperature and by heating to room temperature we generated about 90 atmospheres pressure. We examined the cultures through a hole drilled in a rifle barrel. Most of the cultures exploded and one went clear through a heavy door. By heating to this room temperature, we probably had boiled the organisms, if present. What we saw we photographed, but we put no trust in it and we never dared to peep about it. The war came and we drifted apart. The experiment was never repeated.
In his lecture he summarised his earlier plea for experiments with ammonia:
There are at least three reasons why these compounds should deserve our particular attention. In the first place it is almost certain that they were present in the atmosphere in Proterozoic days. Further they are playing a great role in the synthesis of organic compounds while, and this may be the most important reason, they are constituents of the atmospheres of the large planets. E.C. Franklin has devoted a lifetime to the study of the ammonia system of compounds and has shown that liquid ammonia not only has much in common with water, but that at -65 °C a whole ammonia system of compounds exists, analogous to the water system. Our Ptolomeic system made place for the Copernican, physics and chemistry are consulting the stars and have become astrophysics and astrochemistry. If life is an inevitable state of matter it would be not too far-fetched to assume ammonia systems to be possible carriers of life, a statement to which Haldane concurs. Urey however claims that the water system is the only one, because we know enough about such systems as the ammonia system.
ln the face of the extreme importance of the matter […] and in order to get rid of the “water bogey” which is bothering us now and which may be the cause of the appointment of an Astrobotanist in the U.S.S.R and from which we hear that he is experimenting with tomatoes…, certainly not “ammonobionts”… In the last 25 years cryogenic technique has doubtlessly advanced and instead of using the ammonia analogues of “water” organic compounds try to grow autotrophs, with carbon dioxide and hydrogen in liquid ammonia.
In his handwritten notes for the lecture in December 1959 Baas Becking complained like a misunderstood scholar about Urey’s statement, “that the ammonia, methane and H2S systems have been sufficiently studied and let it go at that […] and he continues ‘life is bound to water’. No highly complex system of chemical reactions similar to that which we call ‘living would be possible in such media’. How does he know?” He referred to Harold Clayton Urey (1893-1981), American physical chemist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934 for “his discovery of heavy hydrogen.”
Symbiosis and “Nothing in the World is Single”
In Section 7, Mutual Influence of Organisms in the 1944 and Symbiosis in the 1953 version of Geobiology, Baas Becking’s ‘universal concept of symbiosis’ – as Quispel (1998) called it - was included. It was based on the idea of “mutual dependence of vital units (cells, tissues, organs, organisms) either of a parasitic, mutualistic or commensalistic character.” In 1948 Baas Becking considered that “Extension of our modern concept of symbiosis” had been another chief result of his career in biology. Quispel (1998) remarked:
It might be objected that such a broad definition of symbiosis takes much away from the original definition However, the present insight in the role of biochemically related signals in differentiation and morphogenesis, as well as in plant (or animal)-microbe interactions, shows that it can now be considered as a far seeing view. He did, however, ask me to include a short description of his concept of endosymbiosis in the introduction to my PhD thesis of 1943, which alas has remained its only published form.87
The concept included not only interactions between organisms, but also processes within cells and tissues. The ‘histosymbiose’ for example comprised the collaboration of the different tissues, which together constitute the living organism. Microorganisms and multicellular organisms were involved, but also higher plants and animals. The concept further included man. Baas Becking also widened the original concept symbiosis of De Bary of a mutualistic relation between two different organisms by symbiotic relations occurring in a single organism or between organisms of the same species. These were named auto- or homoiosymbiotic relations by him in contrast with the heterosymbiotic relations of De Bary.
In the transcript of Geobiology the broad concept of symbiosis is introduced in Section 1.6.3. with a quote from Percy Bysshe Sheley’s Love Philosophy (1819): “Nothing in the world is single.” From his short explanation and the content of Section 7, it is evident that Baas Becking considered the statement as a biological law, just like ‘Everything is Everywhere but the Milieu Selects’. Derx (1947) summarised Baas Becking’s central idea of the symbiosis concept:
It should indeed be realised that it might well be, that strict autotrophy exists only as a mental extrapolation. Though green plants are generally supposed to be “self supporting” even these are frequently found to be dependent in one way or another on the co-operation of microbes. Living matter is symbiotic in essence; mutual dependences in every degree, in every imaginable form are to be found everywhere. Consequently, symbiosis in some form must necessarily pervade the numberless manifestations of that single autonomous phenomenon: Life.
Man was an important participant in his symbiosis concept, as he in an unpublished lecture Our Relations to the Earth in Sydney in the early 1950s expressed:
In this technological age (and truly the hand has matured before the brain) we are apt to forget that we are also vertebrate animals, living in symbiosis with a great number of other organisms. In the web of life, we only represent a single knot, we are connected with a multitude of other living beings. These connections range from plain killing, via parasitism to domestication and exploitation, both inter- and intra-specific, further antagonism (most of the present human relations) to a true mutualism, which is the rarest form of’ symbiosis. The term “metabiosis” designates a succession of organisms in which a pioneer prepares the environment for a successor. History, in a way is a description of intra-specific metabiosis.88
The framework of symbiosis in the 1944 version of Geobiology Baas Becking distinguished 33 forms of symbiosis (Table 7.2a), which he illustrated by examples (Table 7.2b). ‘Slaves, fungus, garden seed dispersal of ants’ is a symbiosis example of helotism, exploitation of individuals in a community. In the 1953 version 89 forms of symbiosis were classified, an example of his urge to be complete. Therefore, a description as ‘divorce, rivalry of the sexes’, was entered as an example of antagonism within the group homoiosymbiosis, specified as gamosymbiosis. ‘Euneuchs, harems, primitive marriage, civil code’ and ‘pimps, prostitutes, certain forms of marriage’ were other forms of gamosymbiosis, and examples of ‘helotism’ and ‘parasitism’. Baas Becking remarked:
If man were exclusively considered in this scheme, a great many poems, novels, and plays could be classified with ease. When the poet says: “Du bist wie eine Blume”, we classify this utterance as “hetero-gamo-mimesis.”
Baas Becking’s concept of symbiosis was not only summarised by Quispel (1943, 1946) in the introduction of his PhD thesis, but also discussed in a communication to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam by his friend and colleague Henry Derx in 1947. However, they published their papers in journals outside the mainstream of scientific information exchange at the time. Therefore, Baas Becking’s symbiosis concept unfortunately remained unknown and didn’t play a role in Sapp’s History of Symbiosis (Sapp, 1994) or in Oliver and Russell (2016) Introduction to Symbiosis.
Man and Terrestrial Milieu
The two manuscripts of Geobiology include a Section 8 on Man, a topic strongly related to his symbiosis concept. Like the Section 7 on symbiosis, it was an addition to the original text of Geobiologie (1934). There is a major contrast between the two unpublished manuscripts. The 1944 version is mostly based on the most gripping document in Baas Becking’s scientific legacy, The Kingdom of this World, which he began on December 13, 1942, one week after his beloved sister-in-law Elize Haverman-Pinke died of breast cancer.89 Baas Becking had cared for her and her sons in Scheveningen in the last months before her death. Writing was for him a form of grief processing. The Kingdom of this World gives us an insight into his anguish, indignation and sadness marked by the war and personal suffering. Only seven chapters out of the twenty that were planned, were finished in the handwritten 86 pages of The Kingdom of this World. They supply information for the paragraphs in Section 8 that were left blank in the 1944 version of Geobiology.
It is useful to analyse our relation to the earth. It may cover us with shame. It may (I hope) make us realise that we have committed a grave, communal sin to God, far greater than any trespass of any commandment given in our scriptures; it may make us realise that every one of us, whether priest, soldier, farmer, engineer or scientist, have contributed their share to make the earth less worthwhile, less inhabitable. Like town rabble in an unprotected orchard, like locusts in a corn field, we have brutalised and mauled our own mother. Our only mother, for if we finally choke in our own excretion products, there is no other planet for us to devastate. I want to prove:
1) That this devastation is imminent,
2) That it will become irreversible within a few generations,
3) That, unless “economic theory” is radically changed, the end is certain,
4) That practical measures may be developed to make a new earth and, because of this new earth, a new race of Man.
I intend however to use only the most trivial sources, the most everyday examples, the accepted scientific truths. As a biologist I have a trained eye, as a man I had a long and varied life. I do not want to drag myself through libraries any more, for there I only find Man, looking in adoration at its own image, or damming this world with (and because of) this damnable Man and referring the latter to the hereafter. Surely, the dead cannot pay their debts. I prefer to tell my tale without help from the living or from the dead, aren’t they all culprits? They all stand accused. I shall try to be the council for the Earth. She is mute, she is old, she is long suffering and she is about to die. Cease your money making, you idiots, and listen. Your mother is dying!
The 1953 version of Chapter VIII Man lacks the emotional and very personal approach of the 1944 version. In nine sections and 52 paragraphs Baas Becking gave a much more complete and balanced biological assessment of the relation between the living organisms and the earth:
Civilisation, as the exoteric aspect of culture, while changing its structure continuously has entered, only a few generations ago, a new and unusual developmental phase, this phase of increased growth and differentiation was preceded by a global exploration. In the last 150 years the impact of man upon the earth has increased to an unprecedented value; by increase in numbers but much more so by the increase in wants. This increased impact has been harmful to the earth’s surface. Potentially, the influence of man is proportional both to numbers and to his wants, and this influence might be counteracted by another product, a product of numbers and individual creative (or restorative) powers. As the wants, however, are common to all variants and the creative powers given to a few only, dissipation of the earth’s surface, dissipation of goods and of energy is going on unabated, in spite of the repeated warnings of the few.
The attitude of man towards the earth is still, on the whole, that of a parasite. For a parasite, however, the life of the host is of prime importance and even if our attitude should remain unchanged the human race could persist on a rationally exploited earth. It is the task of the sociologist to find a reason for human attitudes, but the relation of man at the earth concerns biologists as well. The biological point of view may be a narrow one and much that has been said in this chapter should probably be ascribed to the specialised attitude of a biologist. If this attitude leads us astray, the question might arise, astray from where? For there are no long term plans, no long term directives for mankind. To be optimistic about the future of humanity (as a function of the future of the earth) may be a comfort to those who refuse to appraise, objectively, the present situation.
It is painful to note, that more than 75 years after Baas Becking formulated his analysis and conclusions about the harmful role of humans on their environment, they are still of topical value.
Geobiology certainly does not fit anymore in the current mainstream of geochemistry and geobiology research. Therefore, the text of the unfinished manuscript of Geobiology needs an elucidation to be able to appreciate the components in their context. This is all the more important because it has been more than 75 years since the manuscript was written. Much of the work discussed in the document is nowadays outdated, difficult to find and unknown to the contemporary reader. The published work from his research group in the Leiden Botanical Laboratory the 1930s was largely “buried in the Recueil or in the Academy Proceedings”, as Baas Becking characterised the relatively obscure journals that published quickly and without peer review.90
A significant amount of Baas Becking’s work has remained unpublished. However, many unpublished documents were available for me as editor in the form of digital copies from archives in the Netherlands and Australia. Moreover, part of Baas Becking’s scientific work is also available on the internet. To clarify the text, various parts of the manuscript have been supplemented with information from Baas Becking’s own work, published as well as unpublished. The annotations identify most of the incomplete or incorrect references in the manuscript. The notes present biographical information about the authors of these sources and supply descriptions on what they deal with. The explanations and annotations attempt to place the work of Baas Becking in a time perspective, which is why parts of the typescript of the 1953 version of Geobiologie, have also been quoted. In addition, in some places reference has been made to more recent research.
The transcript of Geobiology contains editorial explanations and additions, these are placed in square brackets. In case Baas Becking omitted to give a reference without year of appearance this was silently entered in the text. In addition, many wrongly written names of authors or persons have been tacitly corrected. On several places there are notes, usually references to literature written in ink. These were probably entered in the ledger before Baas Becking was in the Utrecht prison, because there he only had a pencil for writing the entries. The parts in ink are in text boxes in the transcript.
Most of Baas Becking’s documents are written in English. Several early publications and his inaugural orations in Utrecht (1927) and Leiden (1931) are in Dutch. In case these sources are cited, they have been tacitly translated into English.
Description of the Manuscript of Geobiology
The manuscript of Geobiology is a ledger with a hard cardboard cover that is covered with black paper. The spine of the book and the corners of the cover are overlaid with gray linen. The cover has a hole on the front through which the damaged cardboard is visible. The ledger is from the company of Planeta D.B. and M.R. 5048 B. Size of the ledger is 16.5 × 21.5 cm, 383 pages numbered by hand in ink; 388 pages in total, cover included. There is a sticker on the inside with the name of the bookseller: N.V. A. Dorsman’s boekhandel and Drukkerij, Voorstraat 51-53, Noordwijk-Binnen.
Triangular Plots, Ternary Plots, Gibb’s or Stokes Triangles
In Geobiology (1934), Chapters VIII, IX and X, Baas Becking used ternary plots to display the composition of waters. The plots graphically depict the ratios of three components as positions in an equilateral triangle. In a ternary plot, the values of the three variables a, b, and c must sum to some constant, usually 1 or 100 %. In the 1953 version of Geobiology he remarked that “a complex of three variables may be represented by this method showing a considerable advantage of the, more usual, plane representation of a space model. It widens our scope in many respects and allows of a welcome extension of the visual methods, so dear to the biologist.”
The triangular plots were frequently used by Baas Becking in the 1944 manuscript. In Section 3 of Geobiology he used the ternary plot to depict the composition of the soil and of brines. In Section 5 the plots were used to analyse seawater, natural and saline waters, by depicting the ratios of the cations and anions of NaCl, CaHCO3- and MgSO4 in the triangle. In that section, he also visualised the differences between blood and seawater. In several plots he enlarged the triangle by adding to each of the three sides of the triangle another one with SiO3 in the opposite angle (Fig. 5.14). So, he constructed a 2 D version of a 3 D tetrahedron or triangular pyramid, to depict the composition of waters for four components. The same he did to illustrate the oxidation and reduction of iron compounds in the lithosphere and in seawater by adding sulphur to the triangular plot, thereby also visualising the relative position of sulphur compounds (Fig. 3.13).
In Sections 3 and 6 most of the triangular plots refer to the metabolic processes in which oxygen and hydrogen are related with carbon, nitrogen or sulphur. In this way he tried to show the chemical processes such as oxidation and reduction, hydrogenation, dehydrogenation, carbonisation and caramelisation. He also tried to relate the reduction stage of carbon compounds with heat combustion. Plates 3.2 and 3.3 in the 1944 manuscript were probably preliminary studies of his article On the Graphical Representation of Chemical Processes, which was published in 1947 (Baas Becking, 1947b).
Several of the drawings of plots in the manuscript of Geobiology are difficult to interpret, because they contain too much information, but too little explanation of the graphically displayed data. However, it is usually evident what Baas Becking proposed to show with his plots, although the graphical exercises seem like a quest to illustrate chemical processes in a novel way. The ternary plots give an idea of his fascination for this form of visualising chemical processes and compositions of substrates and water types. In the oppressive reality of his captivity, that search also must have meant a distraction to him. We therefore chose to leave these plots intact and display these in the transcription like the other figures as in the original manuscript.
After I graduated as a plant physiologist in Leiden in 1974, I decided never to practice this profession. I became a fisheries biologist and obtained my PhD as an historian. Peter Westbroek and Don Canfield brought me back to plant physiology, an enriching experience after nearly 50 years of absence. The annotated transcription of Geobiology is thus “A Work of Redemption”, not in a moral sense like Lawrence Sterne’s fictional travelogue Sentimental Journey (1768), but in a secular sense: an acknowledgement of my youthful prejudices. It is a belated tribute to Baas Becking and my teacher Anton Quispel. I am very grateful to my friend and former supervisor Marcel Donze for his support and his selfless help to make the 830 pages of Baas Beckings Geobiology 1953 typescript accessible for me. Many thanks to the staff of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra who scanned a large part of the Baas Becking archive in the Adolph Basser Library Manuscript Collection: Clare McLellan, Robyn Diamond, Ellen Rykers, Melanie Bagg, Felicity McCook. I thank the family of Lourens Baas Becking in Australia and The Netherlands for their interest in my research and the information that I received from them: Francesca Baas Becking, Ingrid Baas Becking, Steven Teding van Berkhout, Nils de Sitter, Aernout de Sitter. Willem Otterspeer made the sources for his book about Leiden University during the Second World War Het Horzelnest Nest (2019), available to me. The members of the Baas Becking Society were a continuous support for me. I would like to thank Juan Diego Rodriguez Blanco for his work redrawing several figures, as well as Marie-Aude Hulshoff and Robert Raiswell for their excellent and adequate editorial assistance, which improved the readability of Baas Becking’s manuscript of Geobiology.
From the beginning, Annemarie van Santen was involved in my research. I am intensely happy that we were able to reach the end of this undertaking together.
This annotated Geobiology transcription is dedicated to my two granddaughters Sofie and Julia Raat, for whom I desire a better world than the one described by Baas Becking.
Alexander J.P. Raat