Marum, Martin (Martinus) van

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(b. Delft, Netherlands, 20 March 1750; d. Haarlem, Netherlands, 26 December 1837)

natural philosophy, medicine, botany.

Van Marum’s father, Petrus, a construction engineer and surveyor, moved from Groningen to Delft to marry Cornelia van Oudheusden in 1744. Martin attended elementary school and grammar school at Delft; but when his father returned to Groningen in 1764, he matriculated at Groningen University. One of his teachers was Peter Camper, who greatly influenced his studies and stimulated his special interest in plant physiology, a subject hardly studied in the Netherlands in those days. On 7 August 1773, he obtained his Ph.D. for a dissertation on the circulation of plant juices. On 21 August 1773 he received his medical degree with a study of comparative animal-plant physiology. The first thesis was highly esteemed abroad. When van Marum was not appointed professor of botany, as he had been promised, he abandoned his physiological studies, although he could not refrain from experimenting in this field later on.

Van Marum subsequently studied electricity. In cooperation with Gerhard Kuyper he developed an electrical machine with shellac disks drawn through mercury. A description was published in 1776, and translations into German and French followed.

From 1776 to 1780 van Marum practiced medicine in Haarlem. He was at once elected a member of the Netherlands Society of Sciences, and was appointed a lecturer in philosophy and mathematics. In 1777 the Society appointed him director of their rapidly expanding cabinet of natural curiosities. He then lived on the museum’s premises.

In 1781 van Marum married Joanna Bosch, heiress of a prosperous printer, and thus he acquired a piece of land, on which he started to cultivate plants in 1783. His new appointment as director of Teyler’s Cabinet of Physical and Natural Curiosities and Library left him little time for working his own garden, but it brought him his greatest fame.

The organization of Teyler’s Museum was left entirely to van Marum, and he soon obtained a large electrical machine made under his supervision by John Cuthbertson of Amsterdam. Its disks had a diameter of sixty-five inches, the largest possible at the time. Van Marum thought that results obtained with such enormous discharges were bound to bring order to the chaos of concepts about the mysterious “electrical matter.” He described the experiments with this machine and great battery of Leyden jars in three volumes of Verhandelingen uitgeven door Teyler’s tweede Genootschap (1785, 1787, 1795). These experiments were greatly admired and repeated all over Europe. From his experiments with the large machine van Marum concluded that Franklin was correct in his theory of a single electric fluid. For this support Franklin expressed his appreciation. Volta also greatly admired van Marum’s work, and informed him in 1792 of his own experiments; van Marum later introduced the term “Voltaic pile.” Working with C. H. Pfaff, van Marum conclusively proved static and galvanic electricity to be identical.

From 1782 van Marum regularly made trips abroad. In Paris in 1785 he met Lavoisier and saw his assistants at work. After his return home, he made his own experimental test and became convinced of the validity of Lavoisier’s combustion theory. He contributed greatly to the acceptance of the “new chemistry” in the Netherlands by his Schets der Leere van Lavoisier, published as a supplement to the Verhandelingen uitgeven door Teyler’s tweede Genootschap (1787). He applied himself especially to the simplification of the required instruments, thus making the experiments less costly and enabling many chemists to repeat them. His gasometer was also a very important instrument.

Van Marum, in cooperation with van Troostwijk, discovered carbon monoxide. He continued his experiments to decompose and synthesize water, as he had seen done in Paris, and he oxidized various metals and then decomposed the oxides. During his experiments he had smelled ozone, but he did not recognize it to be a form of oxygen. Van Marum was the first to observe condensation of liquid ammonia from the gas, but he failed to realize that other gases would condense under the proper conditions of temperature and pressure. For this experiment van Marum built his own convertible air pump and compressor. In 1798 the Verhandelingen uitgeven door Teyler’s tweede Genootschap included the description of these chemical experiments.

In 1794 van Marum was appointed secretary of the Netherlands Society of Sciences. After the French occupation of the Netherlands in 1795 there was little opportunity for scientific research, and funds for acquiring new instruments steadily decreased. Van Marum then applied himself more to the study of paleontology and geology, collecting much material and information during his various travels. he had already been able to procure valuable items for Teyler’s Museum. In 1784 he bought the fossil Mosasaurus camperi, which had been found on the St. Pietersberg hill in Limburg; it was then still called “the head of an unknown marine animal.” G. Cuvier later concluded that it was a lizard’s head, and thus a land animal, which it had already been assumed to be by Peter Camper’s son, Adriaan.

When traveling in Switzerland in 1802, van Marum bought the Homo diluvii testis et theoskopos, so named by Scheuchzer (1726). Cuvier examined this fossil at Haarlem in 1811, and concluded that it was a salamander. Van Marum also rearranged the whole collection of minerals in Teyler’s Museum according to the methods of Cuvier, at that time the greatest authority in paleontology, geology, and mineralogy. Van Marum always tried to procure the latest and the best scientific information.

In 1803 van Marum bought a country house with a large garden, in which he cultivated mainly South African plants, especially aloes. He contributed greatly to the publication of Prince Joseph of Salm-Dyck’s descriptive catalog of aloes by supplying him with many new species and data. He also maintained correspondence with C. P. Thunberg, Banks, Jacquin, and Jacquin’s son, Joseph Franz.

Van Marum was actively interested in many aspects of human welfare: the prevention of air pollution from carbon monoxide, the treatment of victims of drowning, the construction of a portable fire engine, ventilation in factories and aboard ships, improvements of Papin’s digester to produce cheap food for the poor, lightning rods, especially for windmills, and steam baths for cholera patients. He also gave many public lectures on various subjects. In 1808 he and three colleagues were asked to draft a constitution for the Royal Institute of Sciences (the present Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences). He also was a member of the committee for the organization of higher education (1814).

Although van Marum made no great scientific discoveries, he greatly influenced the dissemination of knowledge in those fields of science that made great progress during his lifetime.


A complete bibliography by J. G. de Bruyn may be found in R. J. Forbes, ed., Martinus van Marum, Life and Work, I (Haarlem, 1969), 287–320. Van Marum’s principal publications are numbers 1, 3, 10, 11, 35, and 40.

Alida M. Muntendam