Chemistry and Medical Debate: van Helmont to Boerhaave

Chemistry and Medical Debate: van Helmont to Boerhaave

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Debus, Allen G., 2001, 296 pp., illustrated
The scientific revolution is frequently pictured as the triumph of the mechanical philosophy over the works of the Aristoltelians and other ancient philosophers, a development that is pictured primarily in the progression from Copernicus to Newton. However, the science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was also closely connected with a third group, the chemists, who rejected both the views of the ancients and those of the more recent mechanists, while offering in their place a chemical interpretation of man and nature.
In Chemistry and Medical Debate, Allen Debus discusses the chemical philosophy of the followers of Paracelsus and van Helmont as it affected medicine. Here the chemists' introduction of chemically prepared remedies and their use of chemical explanations stood in sharp contrast to the views of the galenic medical establishment. The work of van Helmont followed by that of Sylvius at Leiden and Willis at Oxford suggested that chemistry and chemical analogies would correctly explain human physiology through fermentation processes, the duality of acids and alkalis, or other chemical processes. Robert Boyle early in his career was influenced strongly by the work of van Helmont, while Otto Tachenius found many followers when he insisted that the revered works of Hippocrates were best understood in terms of chemistry.
However, with the growth of a mechanical philosophy in the physical sciences many physicians sought to apply mathematics to medicine and to make this subject as certain as a proof in geometry. The result was a continuing debate between chemical physicians (iatrochemists) and medical mechanists (iatrophysicists). A central area of debate was the proper explanation of digestion. Was it due to fermentation or to a mechanical grinding of the food particles?
Debus shows that in this medical context the debate between chemists and mechanists extend well into the eighteenth century. The work of Hermann Boerhaave and Georg Ernst Stahl illustrates two contemporary chemist-physicians who rejected traditional iatrochemical explanations and limited chemistry in medicine to its practical applications. However, in other areas the two were quite different. The former was wedded to mechanistic explanations, while the latter described an animistic physiology. In this book, Debus describes the complexity of the relationship of chemistry to medicine in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a complexity that points to the difficulty of trying to understand the background to modern chemistry without taking into account its early and long-time connection with medicine.


“In the field of the history of science Allen G. Debus deserves to be ranked among the innovators. In his pioneering studies, he has presented such figures as Paracelseus and Robert Fludd as subjects worthy of study. Within a domain that was dominated by physics and astronomy, he saw a space for chemistry. He has placed the history of medicine within a wider scientific, religious, and philosophical context and has characterized chemical philosophy as a third force between the declining Aristotelianism and the rising mechanical philosophy . . . In this volume, Debus retraces the principal results of his studies, specifically focusing on the debate between chemistry and medicine, a debate that was triggered in the 16th century by the appearance of the Paracelsian oeuvre an that was far from concluded at the end of the eighteenth century.” —HYLE

“ . . . This book is not simply an eclectic compilation of writings from early chemistry. Its principal theme is to show that there was a continuous chemical tradition fuelled by Paracelsian origins even after they had been repudiated. This tradition, he rightly insists, had particularly strong links to medicine. As usual Debus writes clearly and punctuates his texts with numerous quotes from primary sources . . . For many it could form a valuable introduction to the subject.” —Bull. Hist. Chem.

“ . . . From Helmont through Willis to Stahl, Debus casts his chemical light into some hitherto unexplored areas of emerging medical theory. He offers a fascinating Spanish digression, for example. This volume provides a good introduction to the large body of Debuss work, over the past four decades, and a reminder that the scientific claims of Paracelsus had been pretty much exhausted by the time that Jungians established what Szulakowska calls a new school of alchemy.” —Cauda Pavonis

“ . . . Just as Coleridge went to Humphry Davy’s lectures to improve his stock of metaphors, so those working on seventeenth-century literature will find here some fascinating background material presented with deep scholarship. Do read it.” —David Knight

“In Chemistry and Medical Debate, Allen Debus (Morris Fishbein Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and Medicine, University of Chicago) offers an erudite and engaging discussion of the chemical philosophy of the followers of Paracelsus and van Helmont as it affected the development and practice of medicine. Professor Debus articulately describes the complex relationship of chemistry and medicine in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by way of providing the reader with a clear and accurate understanding of the background to modern chemistry…an impressive work of outstanding scholarship and a highly recommended, core contribution to the study of the history of medicine.” —The Midwest Book Review

“ . . . Allen Debus has produced a wonderful survey of chemical-medical debate in the early modern era and has opened up avenues for further inquiry by future historians . . . Science History Publications did not serve this volume well when it neglected to print whatever text ought to have been found on page 30.” —Isis

The missing text:
…iatrochemists and iatrophysicists). To a large extent this is due to the influence of Jean Baptiste van Helmont and it is to him that we turn next.

“ . . . a most interesting study that contains a wealth of information about an aspect of the Scientific Revolution that had been neglected until the research of Debus himself. This research has inspired others to take up the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chemistry and alchemy, indeed to the point of producing what is now quite an industry. It is good to see that the master himself is still in good form. The book is beautifully illustrated.” —J. Hist. Med.