Rolfinck, Guerner

views updated


(b. Hamburg, Germany, 15 November 1599; d. Jena, Germany, 6 May 1673)

medicine, chemistry, botany.

Rolfinck was named for his father, the rector of the Johanneum in Hamburg. He studied medicine at Wittenberg under Daniel Sennert and then at Leiden. He continued his education at Oxford and Paris, and received the M. D. degree at Padua on 7 April 1625. It is said that he was offered a professorship at Padua but declined because he wished to return to Germany. In 1629 Rolfinck went to Jena as professor of anatomy, surgery, and botany. He remained there until his death forty-four years later.

In 1629 Rolfinck built the first anatomical theater at Jena and gave lectures involving dissection, an innovation that aroused controversy. Two recently executed criminals were the subjects of dissection, which for a time became known as “Rolfincking” and—by implication—served as an additional deterrent to the “criminal classes.” Rolfinck was the first German to accept Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood, which he taught (in 1632) with such enthusiasm that he compared Harvey to Columbus. He collected surgical instruments, made a personal contribution to ophthalmology (he was the first to demonstrate the location of cataracts in the lens of the eye), and is credited with revolutionizing medicine at Jena.

Although botanical excursions and chemical lectures had been held earlier at Jena, Rolfinck was the first professor in both fields. Botany was part of his original professorship, and he founded the botanical garden in 1631. In 1638 he established the chemical laboratory, and in the following year was appointed director exercitii chymia, which became a professorship in 1641.

The expression “transitional figure” fits Rolfinck well. Despite his renovation of the Jena medical school, he was grounded in an earlier time and produced both a commentary on Hippocrates and an epitome of the medicine of al-Rāzī (he was competent in both Greek and Arabic). He also wrote on botany, but from 1655 he was increasingly occupied with chemistry. In the latter field Rolfinck showed himself the enemy of alchemy and “superstition.” His austere approach is revealed in the preface to his Chemia in artis formam redacta, where he says that the book is not universal but particular, not for transmutation but for medicine, and solely “occupied with the resolution of mixts for the benefit of human health.” He even wrote a book on “chemical nonentities,” chemical works and operations that, since they are unnatural, cannot be accomplished, notwithstanding the “contrary clamoring” of the ordinary chemists. The “nonentities” include such old favorites as oils from precious stones, “sweet” oils of acids and bitter salts, drinkable gold, and “fixed” (solidified) mercury.

Rolfinck’s research contributions to science were minor but those to the organization of science for a new age clearly were major. In addition to the activities already mentioned, he maintained his personal medical practice, trained 104 doctoral candidates, and was six times rector of the University of Jena.


I. Original Works. Rolfinck’s major writings are Epitome methodi cognoscendi et curandi particulares corporis effectis secundum ordinem Abubatri Rhazae ad Regun Mansoram (Jena, 1655); Dissertationes anatomicae methoda synthetica (Nuremberg, 1656); Chemia in artis formam redacta (Jena, 1661); Non ens chimicum (Jena, 1670); and De vegetabilibus, plantis, saffructibus, fructibus, arboribus in genere (Jena, 1670).

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically: G. W. Wedel, Oratorio in funere Rolfinkii (Jena, 1673); J. Günther, Lebenskizzen der Professoren der Unirersität Jena, seit 1558 bis 1858 (Jena, 1858); F. Chemnitius, Die Chemie in Jena von Rolfinck bis Knorr (Jena, 1929); Ernst Giese and Benno von Hagen, Geschichte der medizinischen Fakultät der Friedrichs-Schiller-Universität Jena (Jena, 1958); Max Steinmetz, ed., Geschichte der Universität Jena, 2 vols. (Jena, 1958); and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 312–314.

R. P. Multhauf