Borrichius (or Borch), Olaus

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Borrichius (or Borch), Olaus

(b. Nørre Bork, in Ribe, Denmark, 7 April 1626; d. Copenhagen, Denmark, 13 October 1690)


The son of Oluf Clusen, a rector, Borrichius went to school in Ribe and entered the University of Copenhagen in 1644 to study medicine under Thomas Bartholin, Olaus Worm, and Simon Pauli. He remained a close friend of Bartholin until the latter’s death in 1680. Borrichius was a teacher at the chief grammar school in Copenhagen for a time, won fame as a physician during the plague epidemic of 1654, and became tutor to the sons of Joachim Gersdorf, the lord high steward (Rigshofmester), in 1655. In 1660 Borrichius was appointed professor ordinarius of philology and professor extraordinarius of botany and chemistry. The posts were supernumerary until vacancies occurred.

Later in 1660 Borrichius was granted permission by the university to absent himself for two years in order to prepare himself for these posts by study and travel in other countries. He was joined at Hamburg by Gersdorf’s sons. Borrichius’ diary of the tour, and his correspondence with Bartholin, provide an interesting picture of European intellectual life during the period. He visited Germany, the Netherlands, France, England, and Italy. Among those he met were Sylvius, Swammerdam, Boyle, Petit, Redi, and Gui Patin. Borrichius received the M.D. at Angers in 1664. He gathered much information on the Hermetic sciences during the tour, and was greatly impressed by the Italian alchemist Giuseppe Francesco Borri.

His tour having lasted six years by then, Borrichius was reminded that his university posts could not be kept vacant indefinitely, and he began his journey home from Italy, reaching Copenhagen in 1664. He assumed the posts that he was to hold for nearly thirty years, becoming famous for his polymath erudition and establishing a large and profitable medical practice (he was royal physician to Frederick III and Christian V). He was twice rector magnificus at his university, and in 1686 was appointed counselor to the Supreme Court of Justice and in 1689 to the Royal Chancellery. He never married, and before his death bequeathed his house as a collegium mediceum, to lodge six students.

Borrichius was famous in his own time as a physician, as a polemicist and defender of Hermeticism, and as a prolific writer on chemical, botanical, and philological topics. His histoires of the development of chemistry are among his best-known works. His travels and meetings with other European natural philosophers had not weakened his allegiance to the revived Hermeticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Borrichius was prepared to concede that there was no healing virtue in words, seals, and images; astral influences, if they really existed, consisted of balsamic exhalations. At the same time, he believed in the existence of the philosophers’ stone. Of all profane sciences, chemistry came closest to the contemplation of divinity in nature, and hence to Scripture. Opposing Athanasius Kircher’s views, and especially those of Hermann Conring, Borrichius defended the genuineness and antiquity attributed to the Emerald Table and the Hermetic writings. He also accepted as authentic the alchemical works ascribed to such authors as Democritus, Albert the Great. Arnald of Villanova, Ramon Lull, and Nicolas Flamel. He opposed Conring’s views that Paracelsian principles had no use in medicine and that chemistry was better employed in perfecting pharmacy than in presuming to correct physiology and pathology.


I. Original Works. Borrichius’ chief works are Docimastice metallica (Copenhagen, 1660): De oriu et pro-gressu chemiae disseriatia (Copenhagen, 1668); Lingua pharmacopoeorum sive de accurata vocahulorum in pharma-copoliis usitatorum pronunciatione (Copenhagen, 1670); Hermetis, Aegyptiorum et chemicorum sapientia, ah Hermanni Conringii animadversionibus vindicata (Copenhagen, 1674); De somno et somniferis maxime papevereis (Copenhagen, 1680); De usu plantarum indigenarum in medicina (Copenhagen, 1688); and Conspectus scriptorum chemicorum illustriorum libellus posthumus, cui prefixa historia vitae auctoris ab ipso conscripta (Copenhagen, 1697). De ortu and Conspectus repr. in J. L. Manget, Bibtiotheca chemica curiosa (Geneva, 1702), 1, 1–53. Borrichius also published numerous works on general and Latin philology. His botanical observations in the Acta Hafniensia were collected by S. Lyntrup in his Orationes academical’ in duos tomos distributae, 2 vols. (Copenhagen, 1714). “Nitrum non inflammari” appeared in the Acta Hafniensia, 5 (1680), 213–216. Borrichius’ autobiographical sketch was ed. by F. Rostgaard in his Vitae selectae quorundam eruditis-simorum ac illustrium virorum (Bratislava, 1711), pp. 276–294.

II. Secondary Literature. Various aspects of Borrichius’ life and work are discussed in Dansk biografisk leksikon (Copenhagen, 1934), III, 454–462; a fuller treatment is E. F. Koch, Oluf Borch (Copenhagen, 1866). Supplementary details are in Lenglet du Fresnoy, histoire de la philosophie hermétique (The Hague, 1742) 1, 417–422; C.S. Petersen, Den danske litteratur (Copenhagen, 1929), PP. 669–682, 1041; Lynn Thorndike. A History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York, 1958), VII, 318–320; VIII, 344–346; and E. Warbug, Subacute and Chronic Pericardial and Myocardial Lesions (copenhagen-London, 1938), esp. pp. 13–14, trans. by H. Anderson and G. Seidelin.

P. M. Rattansi

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Borrichius (or Borch), Olaus

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