Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts

Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts

by John C. Powers


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In Inventing Chemistry, historian John C. Powers turns his attention to Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), a Dutch medical and chemical professor whose work reached a wide, educated audience and became the template for chemical knowledge in the eighteenth century. The primary focus of this study is Boerhaave’s educational philosophy, and Powers traces its development from Boerhaave’s early days as a student in Leiden through his publication of the Elementa chemiae in 1732. Powers reveals how Boerhaave restructured and reinterpreted various practices from diverse chemical traditions (including craft chemistry, Paracelsian medical chemistry, and alchemy), shaping them into a chemical course that conformed to the pedagogical and philosophical norms of Leiden University’s medical faculty. In doing so, Boerhaave gave his chemistry a coherent organizational structure and philosophical foundation and thus transformed an artisanal practice into an academic discipline. Inventing Chemistry is essential reading for historians of chemistry, medicine, and academic life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226380360
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/26/2016
Series: Synthesis Series
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John C. Powers is collateral assistant professor in the Department of History and assistant director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Read an Excerpt

Inventing Chemistry

Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-67760-6

Chapter One

Medicine as a Calling

Eighteenth-century biographical treatments of Herman Boerhaave universally praised his intellectual qualities: his encyclopedic knowledge of medicine and the sciences, his mastery of classical and modern European languages, and his acute memory. Almost all of these accounts also posit that his greatest attribute was his strength of character. Take, for example, Samuel Johnson's description of Boerhaave in the Gentlemen's Magazine in 1739: "But his knowledge, however uncommon, holds, in his character, but the second place; his virtue was yet more uncommon than his learning. He was an admirable example of temperance, fortitude, humility, and devotion." According to his students, Boerhaave's virtues manifested themselves in his daily life and work. Albrecht von Haller, who studied with Boerhaave in the mid-1720s, stated that despite his wealth at the time, "Boerhaave lived like a poor brewer." He was amazed at Boerhaave's capacity for work, filling the entire day from seven in the morning until dusk with teaching, tending patients, and conducting correspondence. Boerhaave's student and biographer William Burton concurred with Von Haller's assessment. Regarding Boerhaave's appearance, he stated: "He was negligent of dress, and in his gate and deportment there was an honest and somewhat awkward simplicity." Yet Burton described Boerhaave's habits as "temperate in every thing except application," explaining that he rose at four o'clock in the morning during summer and five o'clock in winter, whence he removed himself to his unheated study, first for an hour of prayer and then for a few hours of reading.

To eighteenth-century readers, these examples of Boerhaave's restraint, modesty, and industriousness were understood within a religious context that has often been missed by modern readers. As Max Weber argued almost a century ago, in Protestant societies where Catholic doctrines regarding the intentionality of sin were rejected, proper behavior was the only acceptable sign of one's religious devotion and membership in the elect. The restraint of passion, emotion, and flamboyance, coupled with a pious zeal for one's work (i.e., one's "calling"), was a sign of divine grace. Boerhaave, steeped in the tradition of Dutch Calvinism, was a true believer in the Reformed faith, and he labored to make his public conduct fit this ideal model of Calvinist piety. In his funeral oration for Boerhaave, Albert Schultens, a theologian at Leiden, related that he once asked Boerhaave how he was able to maintain his patience, even under great provocation. Boerhaave replied that "he was naturally quick of resentment, but that he had, by daily prayer and meditation, at length attained mastery over himself." Andrew Cunningham has characterized Boerhaave's conduct as deriving from an "eirenic" (i.e., peace-loving) stance similar to the position of Robert Boyle and the Latitudinarians in England. According to Cunningham, adherents of the "eirenic" stance rejected sectarian dogma and metaphysics in both religion and philosophy, promoted toleration, and held that "the individual should strive for a certain inner calm or imperturbability of spirit, and express his love of God through applying himself wholeheartedly to work." The work that Boerhaave ultimately undertook to express his devotion was medicine and the teaching of medicine. He saw medicine as his calling.

Several scholars besides Cunningham have investigated the impact that Boerhaave's Calvinist faith had on his approach to medicine and chemistry. At issue was the origin of Boerhaave's empirical philosophy, upon which he constructed a medical system that privileged sensory experience (through anatomical and clinical observation and experiment) over theoretical approaches of any kind. Historians who have studied Boerhaave have observed that, although he had a reputation for piety, the content of his work did not appear to be shaped overtly by religious ideology. On this basis, Harold Cook has argued that Boerhaave's empirical stance derived from debates among philosophers in the seventeenth-century Netherlands regarding the importance of quelling the passions in order to free one's mind from bias and produce reliable knowledge. As he asserted, Boerhaave maintained that the simple use of will or reason was often insufficient to quell the passions, and thus medical systems based on reasoning from theoretical assumptions were fallible. In light of this realization, Boerhaave turned toward philosophical empiricism. Rina Knoeff, however, has argued that Boerhaave's empiricism derived directly from his Calvinist faith. She suggests that the fallibility of the human mind was a tenet of orthodox Calvinism; God as well as the ultimate causes that shaped the natural world were fundamentally unknowable. Nevertheless, Calvinists were called to study the natural world as a means of praising God and his creation. From this perspective, Knoeff argued that Boerhaave's medicine was a form of natural theology, but one in which the structure of the world was merely described without theoretical speculation about final causes.

These two views are not necessarily incompatible. As Gerrit Lindeboom pointed out, Boerhaave was notoriously opaque about his private life and thoughts, so it would be nearly impossible to decide the question of the true origins of his medical philosophy. As an alternative view, I suggest that these two perspectives, the "Calvinist" and the "philosophical," constituted mutually supporting sources for Boerhaave's empirical approach to medicine, chemistry, and natural philosophy. He, in fact, did not see these two approaches as separate. As a committed empiricist, he advocated for the use of methodological tools to help the physician discipline his perceptions and his use of reason. These included the precept that general claims in medicine must be based on repeated and repeatable empirical observations, a methodology derived from the philosophical work of Francis Bacon. Complex phenomena were to be modeled though the application of mathematics, a method that mirrored the approach of the practitioners of "physico-mathematics," such as Isaac Newton and Christian Huygens. Boerhaave asserted, however, that these methods were only viable in the hands of a capable practitioner, by which he meant a physician who possessed the same self-discipline, devotion to community, and commitment to work that the ideal Calvinist did. Only by shaping one's character and behavior in accordance with these values could a physician make reliable choices, whether it be determining a program of treatment for a patient or creating and evaluating new medical knowledge. For Boerhaave, these two elements, the empirical and mathematical philosophy and "Calvinist" self-restraint and ethics, constituted the same methodological approach to medicine. He called this approach to medicine "Hippocratic."

Within the University of Leiden community, Boerhaave's reputation as both a model Calvinist and a Hippocratic physician served an important rhetorical function during his medical career. His perceived orthodoxy and dedication to extant medical practices gave him credibility within the Dutch cultural context of the early eighteenth century. Some historians, in fact, have argued that Boerhaave's medicine was simply a reflection of traditional practices in Leiden, and that he was merely in the proper time and place to be able to transmit the indigenous, Dutch medicine to a wider audience. Certainly, much of his medicine was shaped by the ideas and practices entrenched in the philosophy and medical faculties of Leiden. Yet it would be inaccurate to say that he merely passed on the traditional medicine. In terms of its content and methodology, Boerhaave's Hippocratic medicine was thoroughly modern and, in many ways, novel. His achievement was his ability to present successfully his new medicine as derived from established practices and suffused with traditional values and thus gain the support of traditionalists at the university. In effect, he generated support for his medical reforms (which included his new chemistry) by associating his Hippocratic medicine with the values and character traits that he himself embodied.


All depictions of Boerhaave's education derive from his "Commentariolus," an autobiographical collection of notes that he composed near the end of his life. In this text, Boerhaave asserts that his education formed his mind and character into a model of Calvinist piety, industriousness, and mental discipline. He describes how, although he was not born with a tireless work ethic and disciplined mind, he fashioned himself into an exceptional student, an orthodox Calvinist and, finally, a Hippocratic physician. The aim of the "Commentariolus" and other autobiographical references in his public orations was to reinforce Boerhaave's public image as a pious man of good character and industry, whose behavior and opinions were shaped through a "natural" and just point of view, unfettered by sectarian bias. This interpretation has shaped most subsequent biographical accounts of Boerhaave. William Burton (1703&ndash1753), a former student, collected the notes that comprise the "Commentariolus" after Boerhaave's death and used them in part to compose the first biography of Boerhaave. That biography and Albert Schultens's funeral oration for Boerhaave, which was also based on the "Commentariolus," became the two main published sources of information about his life during the eighteenth century. Thus, Boerhaave played a central role in shaping the public accounts of his own character and its development. The account of his intellectual development presented here also uses the "Commentariolus" and other public pronouncements by him, but with the understanding that they are rational reconstructions designed to promote a specific view of Boerhaave's life and work for specific rhetorical purposes.

According to Boerhaave's own account, the process of shaping his character began in his youth. He was born on New Year's Eve, 1668, in the village of Voorhout, just outside of Leiden, to Jacob Boerhaave (1625–1683), a predikant (preacher) in the Dutch Reformed Church. Jacob intended for Herman, as his eldest son—he had previously buried five children and one wife—to follow in his footsteps and become a minister. In the "Commentariolus" Boerhaave describes his father in the following manner: "He was an open, honest, and simple man: a head of the family of the greatest love, care, diligence, frugality, and prudence. Though not rich in material things, but full of virtue, he presented to his nine children a singular example of what may be accomplished through strict thrift and frugality." Comparing Boerhaave's description of his father with his biographers' descriptions of himself, one can only conclude that he saw his father as the model for his own conduct. In contrast with contemporary accounts that remark on the permissiveness of Dutch parents toward their children, Jacob took an active role in instilling in his eldest son the discipline and industriousness proper for a Calvinist minister. Jacob encouraged in him the love of study, but he also taught young Herman the value of hard work. As he recounted in an oration fifty years later, "With Socratic care he [Jacob] cultivated in me from my earliest youth onwards a love for the study of the humanities; at the same time, I was physically hardened through being made to work in the fields, and he saw to it that I would not grow lazy or languid." There was a practical value in Jacob's character-building lessons: supporting (eventually) nine children on a clergyman's meager salary was not an easy task, and everyone would have had to do his part to help make ends meet. But Boerhaave's labor also reflected a central value in Dutch Protestant culture: that work was the cure for vice and instilled in the working individual habits that were productive and useful to society as a whole.

The Reverend Boerhaave oversaw his son's early education in the classics in order to prepare him for university studies and the ministry. In his biographical notes Herman Boerhaave described his father as a classically educated man, and Jacob envisioned a similar type of education for his son. Young Herman studied Latin and Greek grammar, the classics, the Bible, and Christian Matthias's Theatrum Historicum Theoretico-Practicum (first edition, 1648), a survey of "universal" history composed by the chair of history at Leiden. Boerhaave reported that by the age of eleven he could read Latin and Greek easily and was able to translate the classical languages into Dutch and vice versa. In July 1682, at the age of thirteen, Jacob sent the young Herman to the Latin school affiliated with the University of Leiden as a preparation for his university studies in divinity. As the name indicates, Latin schools in the Dutch Republic primarily taught Latin grammar and literature, but after the student had progressed sufficiently, logic, rhetoric, and a smattering of Greek were also available. After examining the boy, the headmaster, Wigard Wijnschoten, placed Boerhaave in the fourth form, indicating that he had already mastered the rudiments of Latin grammar and literature. By February 1684, he completed the sixth and highest form, at which point he was permitted to matriculate into the liberal arts (or philosophy) faculty of the university. He delayed his matriculation, however, and remained at the Latin school for an additional semester. As he later wrote, he was recovering from a large ulcer that had developed on his leg, which he cured himself with a concoction of salt and his own urine. What he did not record was that he was also in the midst of a family tragedy. In November 1683 Jacob Boerhaave had unexpectedly passed away.

Jacob's death placed a financial burden on Herman, which had to be solved before he could begin his university studies in earnest. In accordance with Dutch law, Herman, as the eldest son, was eligible to inherit a substantial portion of his father's assets and property. The sum that he received was probably not great, and much of that was devoted to supporting his family—his stepmother (Herman's mother had died in 1673) and eight siblings. Still intent upon entering the ministry, Boerhaave decided to use a portion of his inheritance to begin his university education, and he matriculated into the arts faculty of Leiden in August 1684. Jacob Trigland (the younger, 1652–1705), a friend of Boerhaave's father and professor of theology, acted as an adviser to Boerhaave and assisted the young student in obtaining a scholarship from the curators and burgemeesters of the university. In December 1687 Boerhaave received one of thirty theological scholarships to the States College (called the Collegium Theologiae in the university registry), where students lived under disciplined conditions, attended theology lectures at the university, and eventually took the clerical examinations administered by the Reformed Church. Boerhaave, however, in an unusual situation, was allowed to live in his stepmother's house, and he was also awarded nine months' worth of his stipend up front. At this time, he matriculated into the theology faculty and had just over five years of financial support for completing his studies.


Excerpted from Inventing Chemistry by JOHN C. POWERS Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Chapter One
Medicine as a Calling

Chapter Two
Didactic Chemistry in Leiden

Chapter Three
The Institutes of Chemistry

Chapter Four
Chemistry in the Medical Faculty

Chapter Five
Instruments and the Experimental Method

Chapter Six
Philosophical Chemistry

Chapter Seven
From Alchemy to Chemistry

Boerhaave’s Legacy


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