Monday, March 13, 2017

Logistics of Strasburger's Tree-in-Vat-of-Poison Experiment

Ok, I had SO many questions about this experiment. What could have possibly possessed him to put a MASSIVE tree in a vat of poison??? Why did he need such a big tree? Why didn't he just use a smaller plant? How the hell did he even get it in there? How did he keep it from falling over? What was he trying to test??? Why, just why. In retrospect, his experiment actually makes much more sense (except for the 60-foot tree part, WHY???), however, with knowledge of how plants work (or rather the lack thereof) at his time, it’s much harder to understand the logic behind Strasburger's experiment. 

Obviously, I wanted to read his original paper (particularly the methods section) but it turned out to be surprisingly hard to track down. I checked his Wiki page first, but unfortunately, there was no mention of the vat of poison experiment. I eventually found a textbook ( talking about Strasburger's experiment in more detail (ironically not his own). This was the figure accompanying the description:

(click on it to see it better) (

There are several alarming things about this figure. First of all, treeS, PLURAL, AS IN MULTIPLE TREES! Good god was one tree not enough??? Secondly, these trees were apparently all 21 meters tall (68.9 feet). Those were HUGE trees (were being the operative word here). So many things about this are alarming. Where was he getting these trees? He definitely didn't grow them because that would have taken forever. Did no one care he was taking these massive trees? Did he poach them? How can you discretely steal a 70 foot tree??? How did he even move it? I'm imagining a slightly crazed scientist sneaking out to the local park in the middle of the night armed with a saw and his PPE, cutting down the largest tree he could find, and bodily dragging his kill back to the lab. This is most definitely not how it went down, there's no way in hell anyone could drag a tree that big, but for some reason this is just how I imagine it happening. Thirdly, the trees were saturated up to 20 meters with poison. That's a LOT of poison. I find it slightly alarming that poison appears to have been so readily available in such massive quantities. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this figure is its label: Strasburger's great work. Just let that sink in. Check this guy's Wiki page, ( it describes him as, I quote: "a Polish-German professor who was one of the most famous botanists of the 19th century." How is killing trees with vats of poison considered the great work of a man who was considered one of the most famous botanists of the 19th century???

Despite raising more questions than it answered, the textbook did give the name of Strasburger's original paper: On construction and function of the conduits in plants - 1891. Overjoyed, I immediately put it into Google Scholar. Nothing. Not dissuaded seeing as it was published in 1891, I repeated the search in normal Google. I found it but was greeted with my first obstacle: the paper wasn't a paper, it was a 1000-page book. Still determined to find my answers I clicked on it anyway and was greeted with my second, much less surpassable obstacle: the entire thing is in German. The actual title is Über den Bau und die Verrichtungen der Leitungsbahnen in den Pflanzen. I still really wanted to find the answers to my questions but because the book is so old, there doesn't seem to be any pdf versions of the text or translations available.

The entire text is available through Google Books ( If anyone can read German PLEASE tell me how he obtained and moved the trees, where he got all the poison, and what his original question actually was.

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