Lemery, Nicolas

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Lemery, Nicolas

(b. Rouen, France, 17 November 1645; d. Paris, France, 19 June 1715)

chemistry, pharmacy.

Nicolas Lemery was the fifth of seven children born to Julien Lemery, a Protestant attorney in the Parlement of Normandy, and his second wife, Susan Duchemin. When Nicolas was eleven years old his father died, leaving a widow and four surviving children. Shortly before his fifteenth birthday he was indentured as an apprentice apothecary to his uncle Pierre Duchemin in Rouen. After serving six years with his uncle, in 1666 he went to Paris, where he became a boarding student of Christopher Glaser, then demonstrator in chemistry at the Jardin du Roi. Apparently Lemery did not find Glaser a compatible teacher, and this arrangement lasted only two months. He then embarked on a six-year period of travel and study. Few details survive of this period in his life. He is known to have visited Lyons and Geneva and to have spent a considerable part of the time between 1668 and 1671 in Montpellier, where he resided with a young Protestant master apothecary, Henri Verchant. In the summer of 1670 he was registered as a student of pharmacy in Montpellier and was permitted to attend the courses on “simples” and anatomy given at the Faculty of Medicine for such students. According to Fontenelle, he also taught chemistry courses to Verchant’s students that attracted members of the medical faculty and other notables of the town.

In 1672 Lemery returned to Paris, where he associated with members of the household of Louis, prince of Condé (le Grand Condé). He attended the conferences of the Abbé Bourdelot, the prince’s physician, and worked in the laboratory of the prince’s apothecary Bernadin Martin. This connection no doubt introduced Lemery to the fashionable intellectual circles of Paris. In 1674 he secured his professional status by purchasing the office of apothecary to the king and grand prévôt of France, thus circumventing the legal obstacles in the path of a Protestant seeking admission to the guild of apothecaries of Paris. During the next seven years he established a highly successful pharmaceutical business, specializing in patent medicines. In addition, he gained a considerable reputation as a teacher of chemistry by his private courses. These courses not only catered to the professional needs of pharmacy apprentices but also attracted a large audience from fashionable Parisian society interested in semipopular scientific expositions. The textbook of his course, the Cours de chymie (1675), enjoyed unprecedented success for such a work, selling, as Fontenelle comments, like a work of romance or satire.

Beginning in 1681, however, increasing religious intolerance in France introduced a period of considerable anxiety in Lemery’s life. He was required to dispose of his office as privileged apothecary to the king, and in 1683 proceedings were set in train to close his laboratory and shop. These events prompted him to go to England in 1683, perhaps in anticipation of securing a position there. Disappointed, however, he returned within the year to France, where he acquired an M.D. degree at the University of Caen in order to reestablish his professional status following the loss of his position as privileged apothecary. He continued his teaching in increasingly difficult circumstances until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, when as a Protestant he lost all his professional and legal rights. Early in the following year he abjured his religion and was received, together with his family, into the Roman Catholic church. Shortly thereafter he was granted permission to reestablish his laboratory and shop on condition that he take no apprentices, following opposition from the Paris guild of apothecaries on the grounds that he had forfeited his right as an apothecary by qualifying as a physician. Lemery devoted the next twelve years largely to pharmacy, publishing at the end of this period his Pharmacopée universelle (1699) and the Traité des drogues simples (1698). In 1699 he was admitted to the reorganized Academy of Sciences as associate chemist, and in November of the same year he succeeded Claude Bourdelin as chimiste pensionnaire. His subsequent scientific work was associated almost exclusively with the Academy. He died in 1715.

Lemery’s scientific career fell into three phases: the first (1674-1683) was dominated by his successful teaching career and the publication of his Cours de chymie; the second (1686-1698) saw the reestablishment of his pharmaceutical business following his conversion to Catholicism and culminated in the publication of his Pharmacopée universelle and Traité des drogues simples; and the third period (1699-1715) was dominated by his association with the Academy of Sciences, which resulted in the publication of several memoirs in the Academy’s journal and a monograph on antimony entitled Traité de l’antimoine (1707).

Lemery’s teaching and textbook on chemistry, the Cours de chymie, owed their success to his clear and entertaining presentation of chemistry in corpuscularmechanist terms. His adoption of mechanical modes of explanation brought the French chemical teaching tradition out of its earlier Paracelsian-Helmontian inheritance into the mainstream of contemporary Cartesian natural philosophy. His originality, however, should not be exaggerated; his presentation of chemistry remained wedded to the pharmaceutical goals of the teaching tradition established at the Jardin du Roi, and in practical content and organization his text follows very closely the works of his predecessors Nicaise Le Febvre and Christopher Claser. The sources of his mechanism are unclear, as there is no formal philosophical or methodological introduction to his chemistry. They were probably largely Cartesian in influence. He was a close friend of the Cartesian Pierre-Sylvain Régis, who lectured on Cartesian natural philosophy in Lemery’s laboratory in 1680; but the atomism of Gassendi also probably influenced him, and he mentions François Bernier’s redaction of Gassendi’s philosophy in the 1690 edition of the Cours de chymie.

But Lemery cannot be said to have developed a thoroughgoing Cartesian or atomistic theory of matter. Rather he introduced his explanations of chemical reactions in terms of particle shape and movement on an ad hoc basis, appealing to a naive empiricism which stressed the visual imagination, bolstered in some instances by microscopic observation. Thus the best way to explain the nature of salts, according to Lemery, is to attribute shapes to their constituent particles which best answer to all the effects they produce. Acid salts must have sharp pointed particles because of their sharp taste and, even more convincingly, because they solidify in the form of sharp pointed crystals. Contrariwise, alkalis are composed of earthy solid particles whose interstitial pores are so shaped as to admit entry of the spiked particles of acid. For reaction to take place between a particular acid and alkali, there must be an appropriate relationship between the size of the acid spikes and alkaline pores. Effervescence is produced in some acid-alkaline reactions by the expulsion of fire particles entrapped in the pores of the alkalis. Lemery also deduced the shapes of particles from the alleged physiological action of chemical substances in conformity with then current iatrophysical doctrines.

As a common origin for all salts Lemery suggests the fossil or gem salt (common salt) which is formed from an acid liquor flowing in veins in the earth. The acid liquor insinuates itself into the pores of stones and after concoction for several years forms this primogenital salt. All salts are derived from this fossil salt, with the exception of saltpeter, which derives its acidity directly from acid particles in the atmosphere. He tentatively suggests, however, that the acid liquor responsible for the formation of fossil salt may derive its acidity, like saltpeter, from the acid particles in the atmosphere. Vegetable salts in their turn are derived from terrestrial salt by absorption into the plant. Lemery’s discussion of vegetable salts leads him to an interesting critique of analysis by fire. He recognizes three species of vegetable salt: the acid or essential salt crystallized directly from the juice of plants; the volatile alkaline salt produced by distilling macerated and fermented seeds and fruits; and the alkaline fixed salt derived from the ashes of combusted plant materials. Of the three, only the first type is preexistent in plants; the other two are products of the action of fire. In discussing the production of the alkaline volatile salt of plants by heating, Lemery concludes that it must be admitted that fire destroys and confounds most things which it dissects, and there is no occasion to believe that it yields substances in their natural state. The probity of fire as a tool in vegetable analysis became a subject of much discussion and debate in the Academy of Science in Lemery’s lifetime and subsequently.

Lemery, however, was not disposed to renounce analysis by fire entirely: he still finds a place in his chemistry for the five iatrochemical principles of salt, sulfur, mercury, water, and earth based on fire analysis. His retention of these principles reveals a curious tension in Lemery’s chemistry between his innovative mechanist approach and its traditional iatrochemical framework. He states that he would like to believe that these principles are found in all mixt bodies: they cannot be separated so readily from minerals, and not even two of them can be extracted from gold and silver. Consequently, in spite of his initial discussion of them, the principles play a limited role in his subsequent exposition. Nevertheless, he is insistent that experimentally determined principles have a place in chemistry as an antidote to purely hypothetical mechanical theories of matter—one must proceed from the demonstrable products of chemical analysis to the shapes of particles and not vice versa. In spite of the drift of his arguments, Lemery, however, is unable or unwilling to formulate a new set of empirically determined principles based on a wider range of analysis than that of fire.

Lemery’s chief contributions to pharmacy were his two complementary works, the Pharmacopee universelle and the Traité des drogues simples. These are alphabetically arranged lists of composites and simples respectively, giving the source, virtues, does, and therapeutic action of the various medicaments. They represent a comprehensive dictionary of pharmaceuticals. Their chief rival was Pierre Pomet’s Histoire gérale des drogues (1694).

His late major work was Traité de l’antimoine (1707), which contained the results of his investigation into the properties and preparations of mineral antimony, his chosen topic of research on admission to the Academy of sciences in 1699. It is a thorough and systematic collection of preparations of mineral arranged according to technique of preparation, but it does not depart in spirit or style from the section on antimony in the courses de chymie. He also published in the Mémoires of the Academy papers on the physical and chemical explanations of subterranean fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, thunder, and lightning (1700), which he attributed to the spontaneous reaction of iron and sulfur, and on the analysis of camphor (1705), honey (1706), cows’ urine (1707), and experiments on corrosive sublimate (1712). All are of minor importance, and his last researches in the Academy suffer comparison with the works of the other chemists, Guillaume Homberg, E. F.Geoffroy, and his son Louis Lemery.

The elder Lemery invites comparison with his older English contemporary Robert Boyle. Both were advocated of an eclectic mechanical philosophy and were firmly convinced of the contributions chemistry had to make to that philosophy. Lemery’s vision of chemistry, however, was much more limited due to his professional commitment to pharmacy and to his inheritance of a well-established textbook tradition which was largely pharmaceutically oriented. He was perhaps inhibited by overriding professional concerns from attempting to integrate his chemistry more fully into the new scientific philosophy in the manner of Boyle. Also the opportunity to do so within the broader scientific environment of the Academy of Sciences came late in his life, and by that time his interests and outlook were set. Two of Lemery;s sons followed their father’s interest in chemistry, and both became members of the Academy. The elder, Louis Lemery (Lemery le fils, 1677-1743), succeeded his father as chimiste pensionnaire in 1715. A younger son, Jacques Lermery (Lemery le jeune, 1677/1678-1721) was an associate of the Academy from 1715, publishing several memoirs on phosphorus before his early death.


I. Original Works. There is no wholly satisfactory guide to the numerous editions of Lemery’s works; most useful are J. Roger, Les médecins normands du XIIe au XIXe siècle (paris,1890), 53-55; A. J. J. Vandevelde, “L’oeuvre bibliographique de Nicolas Lemery,” in Bulletin des societes chimiques Belges, 30 (1921), 153-166; and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 29-31.

More than thirty eds. of the Cours de chymie (Paris, 1675) have been recorded. Eleven separate eds. appeared which claimed to have been revised and corrected by the author himself, the last of these being the 11th (Leiden, 1716), reissued in Pairs in 1730. Other eds. in French were published at Amsterdam, Leiden, Lyons, Brussels, and Avignon between 1682 and 1751. The last French ed. was edited by Théodore Baron (paris,1756), who added many notes in an effort to update it in conformity with current phlogistic theory; this ed. was reissued in Pairs in 1757. The Cours was also translated into Latin, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and English. The English translations were by Walter Harris (London, 1677, 1686, from the 1st and 5th French eds. respectively) and by James Keill (London, 1698, 1720, from the 8th and 11th French eds. respectively).

The Pharmacopée universelle (Paris, 1697) appeared in at least five subsequent eds. from Paris, Amsterdam, and The Hague. The last ed. was in two vols., Paris 1763-1764. The Traité universel des drogues simples (Paris, 1698) appeared in at least five eds. to 1759. The 3rd (Amsterdam, 1716) and subsequent eds. have the title Dictionnaire outraté universel des drogues simples. It was translated into Italian, German, Dutch, and English.

The Traité de l’antimoine (Paris, 1707) was translated into German and Italian.

A work entitled Recueil de curiositez rares et nouvelles des plus admirables effets de la nature et de l’art by a Sieur d’Emery, although sometimes attributed to Nicolas Lemery, is not generally considered to be by him.

Lemery’s contributions to the Paris Academy of sciences are to be found in its Histoires and Mémoires (1699-1712).

II. Secondary Literature. Fontenelle’s éloge, in Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences for 1715 (Paris, 1717), pp. 73-82, remains an important source for Lemery’s life. It is not without error, howhere, and should be supplemented by P. Dorveaux, “Apothicaires membres de l’Académie royale des sciences, VI. Nicolas Lemery,” in Revue d’histoire de la pharmaicie, 19 (1931), 208-219. J. Roger, Les médecins normands du XIIe au XIX siècle (Paris, 1890), 47—55, repeats several of Fontenelle’s errors put includes two unpublished letters of lemery from the 1660’s. P.-A. Cap, Érudes biographiques pour servir à l’histoire des sciences. Première série, chimistes-naturalistes (Paris, 1857), 180-226, is a romanticized account of Lemery’s life based largely on Fontenelle but gives useful genealogical information. See also E. and E. Haag, La France protestante, VI (Paris, 1856), 538-544. Lemery’s Chemistry is discussed in J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 28-41; J. Read, Humour and Humanism in Chemistry (London, 1947), 116-123; and most fully by H. Metger, Les doctrines chimiques en France du début du XVIIe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1923; repr. 1969), 281-38, and passim

Owen Hannaway

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