Raoul Heinrich Francé: The man who patented nature

Interview with the molecular and cell biologist Prof. Dr. Martin Simon

The natural philosopher, botanist and microbiologist Raoul Heinrich Francé (1874 - 1943) published the book "Die Pflanze als Erfinder" in 1920. What was special about it?

Simon: The title is somewhat misleading, because the book is actually not written exclusively about plants. Francé also, very intensly, deals with the entire biology, including many unicellular aquatic organisms. It is a very microbiological book, which is not to be expected from the title. What is done in the book is, especially for the time, an extremely innovative comparison of a technical analysis of components, as they exist in plants and in animal unicellular organisms, of leverage effects and functional structures, such as drills or propellers. There is a strongly technical comparison with existing machines, such as steam engines or ship propellers. And this detailed comparison leads to the big conclusion that all this is a natural problem, to which, interestingly enough, both technology and biology often arrive at very similar solutions. Think of the flight of a bird, the wings of a bird, as they are also designed for airplanes, or elements that glide quickly through water, or that simply scatter seeds. The innovative aspect in this book is the combination and integration of technical and biological analysis, which could be called morphological analysis. He concluded that every process has its technical form, i.e. a problem existing in nature. Using the example of an element gliding quickly through water, he compares the locomotion of microorganisms with the development of the first torpedoes. The time factor plays an important role here. Evolution has had a lot of time, with trial and error. Individual organisms that were badly adapted are then extinct again. In reality, the same happens in technology. Much of what we buy today is not technically mature. We are in a throwaway society, where there is less time, less adaptation to the actual technical problem. And if the toaster does not work, it is disposed of. It is like in evolution, the unsuitable is selected. And what we see in the environment, what Francé also analyses, is what has survived.
He comes to very clear conclusions. Among other things, he analyzes the very classic screw that we screw into the wood. Although it has always been technically improved, the same systems exist in nature. Whether it is a single-celled organism that screws through the water, which brings him to the torpedo in his analysis, or individual insects that have to screw parts of their body into the wood. They have the same structures.

Francé was convinced of the perfection of nature and firmly believed that man is also subject to the laws and cycles of nature. What gave him this idea?

Simon: Actually this is the consequent continuation of his logical reasoning, because man is a part of nature. I interpret this in such a way, that Francé was perhaps not quite as pious as the time would have demanded of him, in the sense, that he did not consider man as a higher creation, but as a part of the ecosystem. He saw the ecosystem or the global biosphere as a whole. And man as a part of it, has no divine privileges and is subject to the same laws of cycles.

In his book "Die Pflanze als Erfinder", the shape of salt and pepper shakers patented in Germany, which was based on the principle of spreading the poppy seed capsule, can be found as an example of a technical invention modelled on nature. Experts call this patenting a breakthrough in the history of bionics. Why?

Simon: This can not be found in this patent or the salt and pepper shakers necessarily, but rather in the legislation of the time. It has to do with the fact that a patent can only be granted for a new application, a new aspect. Biotechnology, as described by Francé, the forerunner of bionics, which only today has really grown as a branch of research, achieved general recognition at that time through this pioneering step. Francé succeeded in the courts and the patent office in enforcing a patent on this biological bond for the first time. He had taken the idea from biology from the poppy seed capsules, which was actually not patentable under the law of the time. But by means of a legal trick, and with this precedent, he laid the foundation for further patents. He made research and analysis in biotechnology, as he called it at the time, worthy of industry and funding.

Francé is also considered to be the inventor of the word 'biotechnology'. He says: "Nature becomes almost talkative, if you approach the small world of water with microscopes". What does he mean by this?

Simon: Actually, he did not only take care of the plants, but he obviously also had a good microscopic equipment. He is a classical microbiologist since he looked for microorganisms in the water early on. He analyzed many flagellates, which at that time were still classified in botany. He analyzed water drops or soil microbiology, i.e. everything that he calls the small world of water, very well. Included in this are unicellular organisms that glide through the water and have a good adaptation. And this is what he means by "talkative". You can look at the shapes and look at solutions. On the other hand, I have the whole ecosystem under the microscope when I analyze a drop of water. I can very precisely look at the communities of life, which I can otherwise only experience in long marches through nature. He was certainly a specialist in the individual fields, but he was also multidisciplinary and curious about other fields.

He wrote "The Life of Plants", known for many years as the most important work in botany. The first four volumes were entirely handwritten by him. Why did science deny him recognition for so long?

Simon: I have thought about this for a long time. Actually, he did everything right, i.e. he did a lot of translation. In 1907, he also was co-founder of "Mikrokosmos", a journal that presented biological facts in a way that was generally understandable, and which was unfortunately discontinued in 2014. He has written a lot of popular scientific literature, and described the life in the soil. In the preface to his book he wrote a little about Hegel, who was brilliant but still not understood, and affirmed that he wanted to express himself clearly and understandably. His books, his literature, are really pleasant to read. They are no specialized literature where you have to be highly concentrated. Actually, he should continue to stay in the minds of the people. His book "Das Leben der Pflanzen" is also called "Brehm der Pflanzen" (after the animal life of Brehms), and is therefore a standard reference. He has formulated fundamental findings concerning soil microbiology and thus also co-founded organic agriculture. Francé conducted fundamental research and analyzed material cycles. Today, organic farming is based on this. I think he lived in the wrong time, because at that time industrialization was in full swing. Then the Haber-Bosch process came (large-scale industrial chemical process for the synthesis of ammonia, editor's note), and the nitrogen fertilizer was produced on an industrial scale. It is therefore quite possible that at that time no one was interested in his analyses to replace the upcoming artificial fertilizer, with a biological fertilizer. Today, this is again a huge topic in organic farming. Therefore his research is experiencing a comeback nowadays. His research is remembered again, especially where organic farming is on the rise. Today, even streets are named after him. His memory and his research are now experiencing a renaissance.

Francé wrote more than 60 books, countless articles and is considered a recognized graphic artist who developed the technique of feather engraving, which is rooted in copperplate engraving.

As a wise man of his time, he said: "People can poison rivers with sewage, make the air unbreathable with smoke and fumes, but they cannot destroy the laws of nature without being destroyed themselves" and is thus once again highly topical in our current climate debate. Why has he fallen into oblivion despite his work?

Simon: Honestly, I do not know. The writings he wrote were revolutionary for the time, because he does not see the individual organism, but the whole ecosystem. He has not yet seen it globally, as we do today, but that is the logical continuation. Today, regarding the climate debate and corona as an example, we no longer have to see it in the ecosystem, but we must see the problems, the material cycles or the spread of the corona viruses - as we have been doing all along with the flu viruses - no longer in the individual ecosystem, but in the global spread. Francé already analyzed this consistently back then. At the time, there was already a sewerage system. He realized that if I discharge everything into the stream, then it is gone locally for the time being, but it still exists. A substance is discharged somewhere and also has effects from this place. He was convinced that the waste water in the stream also has effects on the stream. We have to realize that industrialization has produced a lot of waste, including toxic waste and fumes. This has led to air pollution and fish being contaminated. He already knew all of this. But these are unloved topics for many, and perhaps that was a factor that prevented him from being able to join the top scientists at the time. He has not really fallen into oblivion, his writings and views are experiencing a renaissance today.

Uwe Blass (Interview on October 22, 2020)


Martin Simon studied at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern until 2005 and then became Assistant Professor at the Saarland University in 2012. 2018 he became Head of the Department of Molecular Cell Biology and Microbiology in the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Wuppertal.

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