Jean Baptiste Van Helmont

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HELMONT, JEAN BAPTISTE VAN (15791644; also known as Johannes von Helmont)

HELMONT, JEAN BAPTISTE VAN (15791644; also known as Johannes von Helmont), Flemish chemist. Born at Brussels, Helmont studied at the University of Louvain, where dissatisfaction with the curriculum in philosophy led him to pursue medicine. He obtained a medical degree in 1599 but soon grew critical as well of ancient medical authorities. After seven years of travel and independent study he emerged as an iatrochemist, mixing chemistry with natural philosophy and medicine. In this regard Helmont followed in the tradition of Paracelsus, although with notable differences. He rejected symbolic analogies linking the macrocosm with the microcosm and considered that the Paracelsian first principles (sulfur, salt, and mercury) were created through chemical processes rather than being preexistent in material substances. While accepting the existence of sympathies in nature, he believed these to occur naturally and not as a result of supernatural forces. This last view brought him into an already raging controversy concerning the so-called weapon salve (an ointment that supposedly cured wounds after being applied not to the wound itself but to the weapon that had caused it). Although disparaging magical or diabolic explanations, Helmont thought that a certain magnetic sympathy nevertheless existed not between the weapon and the wound, but between the wound and the blood left on the weapon that had caused it. The same type of magnetic sympathy, he believed, also accounted for the effects of sacred relics. "Propositions" such as this led to his condemnation by the Spanish Inquisition and, thereafter, to his imprisonment. His collected works came to light after his death, edited and published (1648) by his son, Franciscus Mercurius (1614?1699; also known as Francisco Mercurio van Helmont).

Much of Helmont's medical philosophy was concerned with the activity of a vital spirit in nature. All things in nature, he believed, arose from spiritual seeds planted into the medium of elementary water. By means of a ferment, which determined the form, function, and direction of all animals, vegetables, and minerals, the seed mingled with water to become an individual entity. To find the invisible seeds of bodies he studied the chemical nature of smoke arising from combusted solids and fluids. It was this "specific smoke" that he termed gas, a name that for Helmont carried spiritual and religious connotations within a vitalist cosmology. Another term, blas, represented a universal motive power, present in nature and in every human being.

Like Paracelsus, Helmont believed that the key to understanding nature was to be found in chemistry, and a good deal of his attention was given to techniques of quantification and to determining the weights of substances in chemical reactions. In his famous tree experiment he compared the weight of water given to a growing tree with respect to the weight of the tree itself. Against Aristotle, and on the basis of observations of a burning candle surrounded by a glass container resting in water, he argued that air could be diminished or contracted, thus making possible the existence of a vacuum in nature. He also advanced techniques for various chemical preparations, especially chemical medicines involving mercury, and advocated a corpuscularian, or particulate, view of matter. Following upon earlier suggestions, Helmont determined that acid was the digestive agent of the stomach and defended the Paracelsian idea of a medicinal liquor alkahest, which, it was claimed, could reduce every body into its first matter.

See also Alchemy ; Chemistry ; Medicine ; Paracelsus .


Primary Source

Helmont, Johannes von. Ortus Medicinae. Edited by Francisco Mercurio van Helmont. Amsterdam, 1648. Reprint. Brussels, 1966.

Secondary Sources

Clericuzio, Antonio. "From van Helmont to Boyle . . . , " British Journal for the History of Science 26 (1993): 303343.

Debus, Allen. The Chemical Philosophy. New York, 1977. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y., 2002, pp. 295343.

Pagel, Walter. Joan Baptista van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1982.

Bruce T. Moran

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Van Helmont, Jean Baptiste (1577-1644)

Belgian physician, chemist, and physiologist, whose research was associated with occult theories. He was born to an aristocratic family in Brussels. Studying at Louvain, he attained early distinction in mathematics, lecturing on physics at the age of 17. Before he was 22, he had read Hippocrates and the Greek and Arabian authors, had become eminent in the doctrines of Aristotle and Galen, and had practiced medicine, according to Vopiscus and Plempius.

In the year 1599, he received his Ph.D. in medicine. After this, he spent some years in the practice of medicine, but meeting a follower of Paracelsus, he became interested in the theories of chemical medicine to such a degree that he retired to the castle of Vilvorde, near Brussels, to spend the rest of his life in the study of experimental chemistry, on which he wrote various treatises, becoming famous throughout Europe for his scientific knowledge.

He revolutionized medicine as known in his day, turning aside from the theories of Galen and the Arabs, and creating an epoch in the history of physiology, being the first to recognize the functions of the stomach and its relation to the other organs of the body.

Van Helmont's many and varied experiments led him to deal with aerial fluids, to which he gave the name of gas carbonic acid gas being his discoveryand it is said that without him the chemistry of steel in all probability would have been unknown to science.

Van Helmont is remembered as an alchemist more than a scientist. Alchemy, with its visions of the elixir of life and the philosophers' stone, presented itself to him as another field of experiment and research. Although he never pretended to the art of making the transmuting powder, he testified his belief in the transmutation of metals, claiming to have seen the experiment performed many times.

Among other things he became a firm believer in mineral and human magnetism, anticipating Franz Anton Mesmer in almost the very terms of the later exponent of the theory, and basing his argument on the observed sympathy or antagonism that seems to spontaneously arise between individuals and the influence exerted by a firm will over a weak imagination.

In 1609, he retired to Vilvorde, near Brussels, and devoted himself to medical practice and chemical experiments. He declined to leave his retirement, although his fame brought him flattering invitations and offers from the Emperor and the Elector Palatine. Almost unknown to his neighbors, he attended anyone stricken by illness without accepting any fees for his services.

His published writings included: De Magnetica Vulnerum naturali et Legitima Curatione (1621), De aquis Leondiensibus medicatis (1624), Opuscula Medica inaudita (1641), and Febrium doctrina maudita (1642). Some of these were translated into Dutch, French, and German. English translations of his tracts include: A Ternary of Paradoxes; The Magnetick Cure of Wounds, The Nativity of Tartar in Wine, The Image of God in Man (1650), and Deliramenta Catarrhi: or the Incongruities, Impossibilities and Absurdities couched under the vulgar opinion of Defluxions (1650).

He died December 30, 1644.