Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Chemistry and Medical Debate: Van Helmont to Boerhaave

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Chemistry and Medical Debate: Van Helmont to Boerhaave

Article excerpt

Allen G. Debus, Chemistry and Medical Debate: van Helmont to Boerhaave, Nantucket, MA, Science History Publications, 2001, pp. xvii + 277, $52.00, ISBN: 0 88135 292 6

Herbert Butterfield rang the bell that called the wits together, to tell the world that there had in the seventeenth century been a Scientific Revolution, equal at least in importance to the Renaissance and Reformation. But fifty years ago, when Allen Debus took up the history of science, method (as in Francis Bacon, Galileo and Descartes) seemed the key, and astronomy the paradigm science where the revolution began. Copernicus and Newton marked the beginning and end of this turbulent time; and other sciences subsequently had found, or would find, their Kepler and Newton. At first as a lonely figure, Debus challenged this reductive perception (where science is either physics or stamp-collecting) by looking at medicine and chemistry: and it is a sign of how successful he has been in broadening our vision that his latest book seems uncontroversial - medicine and chemistry have become mainstream again when we look at the seventeenth century, as they clearly were: for every astronomical publication, there were dozens of medical ones, and health is always momentous. The bibliography occupying pp. 239-65 of this book will be extremely valuable for anyone seeking primary or secondary sources.

Nevertheless, there would be few households where the names Jean Baptiste van Helmont and Hermann Boerhaave would be instantly recognised, and the book is therefore necessary. Alchemy was an important part of chemistry (perhaps better distanced from us by using the old spelling, chymistry) as we now know from scholarship on Robert Boyle and Newton; and it had entered medicine with the work of Paracelsus in the early sixteenth century, amid great controversy. By the seventeenth century, the recognition that desperate diseases require desperate remedies had led to mercury, antimony and other metallic preparations entering the pharmacopoeia. …

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