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Duchesne, Joseph

Duchesne, Joseph

also known as Josephus Quercetanus (b. L’Esture, Armagnac, Gascony, France, ca. 1544; d. Paris, France, 1609)

chemistry, medicine.

The son of a physician, Duchesne (occasionally referred to as Sieur de la Violette) studied first at Montpellier. He married a granddaughter of the humanist Guillaume Budé and, because of persecution of the French Protestants, spent many years away from his homeland. Duchesne received his medical degree at Basel in 1573 and for some time was settled at Kassel, the capital of the grand duchy of Hesse. At this time and later the grand dukes were noted for their patronage of the new Paracelsian-Hermetic medicine. Later Duchesne moved to Geneva where he was received as a citizen in 1584. After election to the Council of Two Hundred (1587), he was sent on several diplomatic missions. In 1592 he helped determine the peace terms which the Republic of Geneva made with its neighbors. The following year Duchesne returned to Paris, where he was appointed physician in ordinary to King Henry IV.

Duchesne is a figure of some importance in French literature as well as science and medicine. His La morocosmie (1583, 1601) and Poesies chrestiennes (1594) have been commented on favorably by literary historians while his other poetical work, Le grand miroir du monde (1584, 1595), is important for Duchesne’s concept of the elements. In addition, he ventured into tragicomedy with L’ombre de Garnier Stauffacher (1583), a work which took as its theme the alliance between Zurich, Berne, and Geneva.

Duchesne’s medicoscientific works are best seen as part of the late sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century debate on the place of chemistry in medicine and natural philosophy. The flood of Paracelsian texts published in the third quarter of the sixteenth century had gained many adherents to the new medicine, but at the same time it had brought forth strong opposition from the medical establishment. Peter Severinus had attempted to systematize the works of Paracelsus in 1571, and Guinther von Andernach had written in defense of the new chemically prepared medicines in the same year, but Thomas Erastus at Basel had prepared a lengthy and detailed attack on Paracelsus and his views (1572–1573). Alarmed by the increasing internal use of minerals and metals, the Faculty of Medicine at Paris forbade the further prescription of antimony in this fashion (ca. 1575).

The strong critique of the views of Paracelsus on chemical medicines and the origin of metals written by Jacques Aubert in 1575 was the occasion for Duchesne’s first publication. His Responsio to Aubert (1575) was a strong defense of the iatrochemical position, and although it was a short work, it was reprinted often and attracted considerable attention.

In the Responsio and many other works Duchesne offered a large number of pharmaceutical preparations. His Sclopetarius (1576), which dealt with the cure of gunshot wounds, and his Pharmacopoea dogmaticorum (1607) are only two of many works by him that were translated into several languages and went through numerous editions. These works offer a large number of remedies prepared from substances of mineral, vegetable, and animal origin. In all of his practical texts Duchesne placed strong emphasis on chemical procedures and his works contain the first printed directions for the preparation of turpeth mineral (basic mercuric sulfate), antimony sulfide, urea, and—possibly—calomel as medicines. Devaux has pointed to Duchesne’s use of sulfur for respiratory problems and iodated substances (calcinated sea sponges) for the goiter.

A series of polemical works debating the value of the new medicine and the extent to which chemistry might be employed by physicians were printed in the last quarter of the century. In France the matter reached a climax when Duchesne published his De priscorum philosophorum verae medicinae materia... (1603). This work was immediately answered by the elder Jean Riolan who accused him of wishing to sweep away the venerable medicine of the ancients in his Apologia pro Hippocratis Galeni medicina (1603). In his reply to Riolan, published the following year, Duchesne denied this charge and answered that he wished only to use the best of the old medicine along with the new chemistry. These works were followed by a series of other works in which both Riolans, Israel Harvet, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, Andreas Libavius, and many other authors participated.

In the course of this debate it became clear that there was more at stake than the simple acceptance or rejection of chemical remedies. For Duchesne—as for other iatrochemists—chemistry was to serve as a key to all nature. His cosmology was based on the biblical story of the Creation, and in his discussion he pictured the Creator as an alchemist separating the elements from the unformed chaos. In the fifteenth chapter of the Ad veritatem hermeticae medicinae ex Hippocratis veterumque decretis ac therapeusi... (1604), Genesis is clearly interpreted in terms of the three Paracelsian principles of salt, sulfur, and mercury. In the earlier Le grand miroir du monde (1584) Duchesne had also accepted the Aristotelian water and earth as elementary substances. This five-element principle system has much in common with the five-element descriptions so common in the works of later seventeenth-century chemists.

Duchesne rejected the four humors of the ancients and when discussing the vascular system specifically spoke of the “circulation” of the blood. By this, however, he meant a series of local circulations in different organs, analogous to the heating of liquids in distillation flasks. His was a world view based on a close relation of the macrocosmic and microcosmic worlds. An integral part of this was his sincere belief in the doctrine of signatures, which for him were an important guide to divine gifts existing here on earth. Duchesne wrote of the need of “experientia” and new observations for a proper understanding of nature, and although he objected to being called a Paracelsian, his views were similar to those of Paracelsus in many respects.

Much of Duchesne’s influence derives from the debate his work had initiated at Paris. His publications of 1603 and 1604 went through numerous editions in several languages and did much to publicize his version of the chemical philosophy. In these works Duchesne had discussed at length the Creation and the three principles. More than half a century later Robert Boyle still found it necessary to comment on these views in The Sceptical Chymist (1661).

In addition, the Parisian debate was influential in bringing about a more general acceptance of chemically prepared medicines. The chemists had been generally agreed that their aim was not to destroy all of the old medicine, but rather to apply what they found valuable in the works of the ancients along with the best of the new chemical medicine. This surely had been the view taken by Duchesne and it was also that of Mayerne, who had been the first of Duchesne’s colleagues to support him in 1603. Mayerne was later to become chief physician to King James I of England, and he advocated this compromise position in the publication of the important Pharmacopoeia (1618) of the Royal College of Physicians. This work is notable both for its prominent inclusion of chemicals alongside the traditional Galenicals and also for its prefatory defense of the new methods of cure.


I. Original Works. There is no complete list of Duchesne’s iatrochemical books. Used together, J. Ferguson’s Bibliotheca chemica, 2 vols. (Glasgow, 1906), and J. R. Partington’s A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), will furnish most titles if not all of the editions.

Among his many works, Duchesne’s first publication, the Ad Iacobo Auberti vindonis de ortu et causis metallorum contra chymicos explicationem Iosephi Armeniaci, D. Medici breuis responsio (Lyons, 1575), was considered a major work in support of the iatrochemical position. It was reprinted often in Latin, French, and German, and an English translation by John Hester was printed in London in 1591. The next year Duchesne published his Sclopetarius, sive de curandis vulneribus quae sclopetarum ictibus acciderunt (Lyons, 1576), a work that appeared in French translation in the same year. John Hester made this text available in English in 1590. The De priscorum philosophorum verae medicinae materia... (St. Gervais, 1603) initiated the debate over the chemical medicine at Paris. Duchesne’s reply to Jean Riolan, the Ad veritatem hermeticae medicinae ex Hippocratis veterumque decretis ac therapeusi...(Paris, 1604), is also a major theoretical statement. The first of these appeared in French translation (Paris, 1626) and selections from both were translated into English by Thomas Timme as The Practise of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke for the Preseruation of Health (London, 1605). A final—and much less well known—Ad brevem Riolani excursum brevis incursio (Marburg, 1605) concluded Duchesne’s contributions to this debate.

There is little question that Duchesne’s most popular work was the Pharmacopoea dogmaticorum restituta pretiosis selectisque hermeticorum floribus abunde illustrata (Paris, 1607). There are twenty-five known editions of this work from the first half of the seventeenth century. The Opera medica includes the Responsio to Aubert, the Sclopetarius, and the De exquisita mineralium animalium, et vegetabilium medicamentorum spagyrica preparatione et vsu, perspicua tractatio. This went through at least two Latin editions (Frankfurt am Main, 1602; Leipzig, 1614) and one German edition (Strasbourg, 1631). The most extensive collection was the three-volume Quercetanus redivivus prepared by johann Schröder, a massive text that went through three editions (Frankfurt am Main, 1648, 1667, 1679).

II Secondary Sources. Pierre Lordez’s Joseph du Chesne, sieur de La Violette, médecin du roi Henri IV, chimiste, diplomate et poète (Paris, 1944) contains useful information.

Guy Devaux’s “Quelques aspects de la médecine et de la pharmacie au XVIe siècleà travers la ‘Pharmacopée des dogmatiques’ de Joseph Du Chesne, Sieur de la Violette, conseiller et médecin du roy,” in Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 19 (1969), 271–284, is a study of the pharmaceutical preparations in Duchesne’s most popular work, while the discussion of Duchesne in Partington’s History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 167–170, centers on the chemical preparations known to Partington.

W. P. D. Wightman, Science and the Renaissance, I (Edinburgh-London-New York, 1962), 256–263, offers a helpful discussion of the complex debate at Paris in the early years of the seventeenth century.

For element theory in Duchesne, see R. Hooykaas, “Die Elementenlehre der Iatrochemiker,” in Janus, 41 (1937), 1–18; and Allen G. Debus, The English Paracelsians (London, 1965), pp. 87–101. Duchesne’s views on the circulation of the blood are discussed in Allen G. Debus, “Robert Fludd and the Circulation of the Blood,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 16 (1961), 374–393.

Finally, Pagel has pointed to a Paracelsian tract (1635) by Fabius Violet (possibly Duchesne) in which the digestive factor in the stomach is identified with the “hungry acid” of Paracelsus. This is a statement that comes close to van Helmont’s position first printed in 1648. The influence of Violet on van Helmont is surely possible although the former did not go on to identify this acid with hydrochloric acid as did the latter. On this see Walter Pagel, Paracelsus, An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Renaissance (Basel, 1958), 161–164.

Allen G. Debus

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