Davison, William

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Davison, William

(b. Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 1593; d. Paris France, ca. 1669)

medicine, chemistry.

Davison was the youngest of three sons born to Duncan Davison of Ardmakrone, Aberdeenshire, and Janet Forbes, daughter of William Forbes, baron of Pitsligo. Although the Davisons claimed descent from several branches of the Scottish nobility, William’s family was in poor circumstances, particularly after the early death of the father. Supported by the generosity of John, earl of Leslie, he entered the Presbyterian Marischal College, Aberdeen, and graduated Master of Arts in 1617. Shortly afterward Davison migrated to France. Here he appears to have graduated Doctor of Medicine, possibly at Montpellier. He also formed a lifelong friendship with Jean Baptiste Marin, the astrologer and mathematician, and studied chemistry for three years (ca. 1620) in the household of Morin’s patron, Claude Dormy, bishop of Boulogne.

Later Davison moved to Paris, where he practiced medicine, principally among the British émigré community, and gave private instruction in medical chemistry. In 1648 he was appointed intendant of the Jardin Royal des Plantes (now the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle), Paris, where he introduced public lectures in chemistry, thus becoming the first in the long line of noted chemical teachers at this institution. Following a legal wrangle concerning his position as intendtant, he resigned in 1651 to become physician to Marie Louise de Gonzague-Nevers (wife of King John II Casimir of Poland) and director of the Royal Botanical Garden in Warsaw. On the death of Queen Marie Louise in 1667 he returned to Paris, where he died about 1669. Davison married a Scottish woman, Charlotte de Thynny, in France; they had one son, Charles.

Davison’s principal chemical work, the Philosophia pyrotechnica (1633–1635), is characterized by long disquisitions on the metaphysical basis of his chemical theory. He elaborates on the Neoplatonic aspects of Paracelsian theory, with emphasis on the macrocosm-microcosm relationship and the search for incorporeal forces operating in the universe under the veil of observed chemical reactions. In a much revised version, published in French as Les élémens de la philosophie de l’art du geu ou chemie (1651, 1657), Davison seeks to incorporate his Neoplatonic world view within the Copernican sun-centered universe. Geometrical analogies are prominent in Davison’s theories. He compares the three surfaces required to form a solid angle with the three principles of salt, sulfur, and mercury. He places great emphasis on the five Platonic solids, and in one short treatise of the Élémens he describes, with illustrations, the microcosmic manifestations of these solids in the crystal structure of minerals and the morphological structure of plants and insects.

Davison’s most ambitious work is his commentary (1660) on the Idea medicinae philosophicae of the noted sixteenth-century Paracelsian Peter Severinus. This work marks Davison as a devoted Paracelsian theorist, but by the time of its appearance it was somewhat outdated, since iatrochemical theory had come to be dominated by the work of J. B. van Helmont. Davison’s highly theoretical chemical texts seem also to have suffered in comparison with the more practical manuals of such near contemporaries as Jean Beguin, Nicolas Lefèvre, and Christoph Glaser. His works are not frequently cited.

Davison was also the author of two minor treatises: one on the Salic law (1641) and another (1668) on a disease of the scalp known as Plica polonica, in which he contested the view that the condition was endemic to Poland.


I Original Works. For a detailed bibliography of Davison’s works the reader is referred to the articles by E.-T. Hamy and J. Read cited below. His major works are Philosophia pyrotechnica seu curriculus chymiatricus, 4 pts. (Paris, 1633–1635; 1640); Oblatio Salis sive Gallia Lege Salis condita (Paris, 1641); Les élémens de la philosophie de l’art feu ou chemie (Paris, 1651;1657); Commentariorum in… Petri Severini Dani Ideam medicinae philosophicae… Prodromus (The Hague, 1660); and Plicomastix seu Plicae numero morborum (Danzig, 1668), published under the pseudonym Theophrastus Scotus.

II. Secondary Literature. On Davison or his work see the following (listed chronologically): J. Small, “Notice of William Davidson, M. D.,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 10 (1875), 265–280; E.-T. Hamy, “William Davison, intendant du Jardin du Roi et professeur de chimie (1647–1651),” in Nouvelles archives du Muséum d’histoire naturelle, 3rd ser., 10 (1898), 1–38; and J. Read, “William Davidson of Aberdeen, the First British Professor of Chemistry,” in Ambix, 9 (1961), 70–101.

Owen Hannaway

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