Le Febvre, Nicaise

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Le Febvre, Nicaise

(b. Sedan, Frances, ca. 1610;d. London, England, 1669),

Pharmacy, chemistry.

Nicaise Le Febvre (Variously spelled Le Févre, Le Févre, Le Febure and sometimes incorrectly given the Christian name Nicolas) was born in the important Huguenot center of Sedan in the Ardennes. His father, Claude Le Febvre, was a Protestant aportant from Normandy who had settled in Sedan during the Wars of Religion; his mother, Francoise de Beaufort, came from a local family of physicians and apothecaries. Following preliminary schooling in the pedagogium of the Calvinist academy of Sedan, Nicaise became an apprentice in his father’s shop in 1625. Before he completed his training father died, and the direction of is education was taken over by Abraham Duhan, a doctor of medicine and professor of philosophy at the academy. After qualifying as a master apothecary Le Febvre continued in his father’s nisomess into; 1646-1647; he then moved to Paries, where he initially enjoyed the patronage of his coreligionist, the physician Samuel du Clos. Le Febvre soon began to offer provate courses in pharmaceutical chemistry. In 1652 he obtained the Jardin du Roi after the departure of William Davison. Among those attending his courses were a number of English royalist emigres; and following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Le Febvre was invited to England as royal professor of Chemistry and apothecary to the king’s household. He was established in a laboratory in St. James’s Palace, which he furnished with supplies from France. Le Febvre was admitted to the Royal Society in November 1661 on the nomination of Sir Robert Moray. His name also appears on the list of registered fellows drawn up at the reorganization of the Society in May 1663. He was an active member and in 1664 was appointed to the chemical committee of the society. Le Febvre died in London in the spring of 1669 and was buried in the parish of St. Martin-inthe-Fields.

Le Febvre’s principal contribution to the literature of science in his textbook, the Traicté de la chymie (Paris, 1660). This work has a pivotal position in the serices of French chemical teaching manuals of the seventeenth century. Its theoretical content, and Glauber, represents the culmination of the iatrochemical tradition in this series of French texts; its practical content and organization, however, were very closely followed by Nicloas Lemery in his Cours de chymie (1675), the most successful textbook of the iatrochemical seventeenth century employing a corpuscularmechanist interpretation. In his prefatory dedication to his fellow apothecaries, Le Ferbver asserts the superiority of contemporary German Pharmaceutical works to their French counterparts: in particular he cites the work of Johann Christian Schröder and Johann Zwelfer. Le Febvre’s own text contains a significant infusion of mid-century German influences.

The theoretical introduction to the Traicté is an individualistic but interesting synthesis of chemical philosophy. For Le Febvre chemistry or medical science of natural things with three main braches: philosophical chemistry, which seeks to apply the knowledge of natural phenomena acquired from philosophical chemistry to the practice of medicina; and pharmaceutical chemistry, which has as its sole object the preparation of remedies according to the directives of those versed in iatrochemistry. Thus chemistry is both science and are, “a knowledge of Nature itself reduced to operation.”

Le Febvre’s chemical theory is is eclectic, drawing on Neoplatonic, Paracelsian, Helmontioan, and Aristotelian ideas. The origin of all natural things is a homogeneous spirit, referred to as the universal spirit, which circulates throughout the cosmos. It is one in essence but threefold in nature. Being at once hot, moist, and dry, it is also known under the names of the three Paracelsian principles, sulfur, mercury, and salt. Individual chemical substances are generated and corporified out of this universal spirit by the action of specifying ferments present in the material matrices in which the spirit is entrapped. In this theoretical schema the four Aristotelian elements of fire, air, water, and earth are not considered as material components of chemical composition but as the four principal cosmogonic regions or matrices in which specification of the universal spirit takes place. Thus, fire is the matter of the heavens, and the stars are the specific ferments moving in this element whence the universal spirit always returns to take on its most perfect idea or form. Air is the first general matrix in which the universal spirit emanating from the stars in the form of light, is corporified. This first corporeal form of the spirit is a hermaphroditic salt which is then absorbed successively by the other two matrices of water and earth; there it is specificated into the diverse forms of the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms.

In addition to this theoretical discussion of principles and elements which belongs properly to philosophical, or “scientific,” chemistry, Le Febvre recognizes five elements or principles which are the products of analysis by fire and belong to the art of chemistry. These elements are water or phlegm, spirit or mercury sulfur or oil, salt, and earth. There is a limit to the resolution of mixt bodies, or further refinement would remove the specifying idea and corporifying matrix, thus resolving everything into the universal spirit. The art of chemistry resides precisely in refining and purifying the components of mixt bodies by repeated solutions and coagulations so that they may act more efficaciously—without simultaneously resolving everything into the universal spirit.

Following a brief description of the principal operations of the art, Le Febvre gives a description of apparatus illustrated with figures. The most notable illustration depicts an operator carrying out a calcination of antimony by means of a burning lens. In the text Le Febvre draws attention to the gain in weight following calcination which he attributes to the fixation of solar rays in the metal. This mode of calcining antimony had previously been described by Hamerus Poppius in Basilica antimonii (1618). Le Febvre’s extensive list of chemical preparations, which forms the bulk of the text, are arranged under the headings of the three kingdoms of nature.

Le Febvre’s other published work was a description of the preparation of Sir Walter Raleigh’s great cordial, a polypharmaceutical preparation which, according to John Evelyn, he prepared before King Charles II in 1662.


I. Original Works. The various eds. of the Traicté de la Chymie are listed in J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 17-18. The 1st ed. (Paris, 1660) was followed by five eds. in French, two of which (1669, 1696) were published in Leiden. The last French ed. (1751) was enlarged by one Du Moustier, Apothicaire de la Marine (actually the Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy). An English trans, by P. D. C. Esq. first appeared as A Compendious Body of Chemistry (London, 1662). Subsequent English eds. appeared in London in 1664 and 1670 asA Compleat Body of Chemistry. A German trans. entitled Chymischer Handleiter appeared at Nuremberg in 1672. Subsequent German eds. are reported for 1675, 1676, 1685, and 1688. J. Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica, II (Glasgow, 1906), 18, reports a Latin ed. in 2 vols. (BesanÇon, 1737).

Le Febvre’s discourse on Sir Walter Raleigh’s cordial was A Discourse upon Sir Walter Rawleigh’s Great Cordial... Rendered into English by Peter Belon (London, 1664). A French version appeared in London in 1665.

G. Goodwin, “Le Fevre,” in Dictionary of National Biography, XXXII (London, 1892), 399; and the British Museum General Catalogue ( “Lefèvre, Nicolas” ) wrongly attribute to him “Disputatio de myrrhata potione,” in J. Pearson, Critici sacri, IX (1660). The author of this work was Nicolas Le Fèvre (d. 1612), a French theologian. The French translator of Sir Thomas Browne, La réligion du médecin (The Hague, 1688), is yet another Nicolas Le Fevre. On these false attributions see the Dorveaux articles below.

II. Secondary Literature. The “Avant-propos” of the Traicté de la chymie contains autobiographical reminiscences which are the principle source for Le Febvre’s early life. Further background on his origins is in J. Villette, “Un procés entre un chirurgien et des médecins sedanais en 1946,” in Revue d’ Ardenne et d’ Argonne, 10 (1903,), 1-16. The most detailed and accurate biographical notice is P. Dorveaux, “L’apothicaire LeFebvre Nicaise, dit Nicolas,” in Proceedings of the Third International Congress of the History of Medicine, London, 1922 (Antwerp, 1923), 207-212. Substantially the same article appeared in Bulletin de la Société d’histoire de la pharmacie, no. 42 (May 1924), 345-356. See also J. P. Contant, L’enseignement de la chimie au Jardin Royal des Plantes de Paris (Paris, 1952), 88-90; J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 17-24; and G. Goodwin (cited above). The best discussion of Le Febvre’s textbook remains H. Metzger, Les doctrines chimiques en France du début du XVIIe à la fin du XVIIe siécle (Paris, 1923; repr. 1969), 62-82.

Owen Hannaway

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