Swieten, Gerard Van

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(b. Leiden, Nether-lands, 7 May 1700; d. Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria, 18 June 1772)


Van Swieten was the son of Thomas Franciscus van Swieten, a notary public, and Elisabeth Loo, who were members of the lesser nobility. During the early years of the Dutch Revolutionary War (1568–1648), one branch of the family became Protestant while the other remained Roman Catholic; van Swieten belonged to the latter1.

Like many Dutch Catholics, van Swieten studied at Louvain; matriculating in the autumn of 1714 or the winter of 1714–1715, at the “Falcon”liberal arts college. It is not known how long he stayed there, but it is fairly certain that he left without being awarded a degree2. On 26 February 1717, van Swieten enrolled as a medical student at the University of Leiden, attracted by the lectures of Boerhaave. After receiving the M. D. degree on 3 July 1725, he established a medical practice in Leiden, which, although it soon became quite sizable, did not prevent him from continuing to attend every lecture of Boerhaave until the latter’s death in 1738. Van Swieten had adapted an existing shorthand system to medical language, so his lecture notes, which still exist, reflect Boerhaave’s presentation quite closely. Their mutual respect led Boerhaave to show his most interesting private cases to van Swieten and to express a lively interest in those of van Swieten. At various times Boerhaave stated that van Swieten would be the most suitable person to succeed him as a professor3.

A few months after receiving the M. D., van Swieten had started a free privatissimum. Although it was not associated with the university in any way, the latter, at the instigation of “the eminent van Royen,”forbade van Swieten to continue these lessons in 17344. This action made it abundantly clear that despite Boerhaave’s favorable opinion, van Swieten, as a Catholic, could not possibly look forward to a professorate at Leiden. Fortunately, he found a post elsewhere. The empress of Austria, Maria Theresa, invited him to become court physician in 1743, at which time van Swieten declined, and again in 1745, after van Swieten had attended her sister Maria Anna in Brussels. This time he accepted, and was put in charge of all court physicians.

Van Swieten soon made himself useful in many other ways. He reorganized the medical faculty of the University of Vienna, taking Leiden as a model, and added a botanical garden and a chemical laboratory, each headed by a professor. Thus he laid the foundation for the Vienna school of medicine, which became world-famous at the turn of the century. Van Swieten became the president of the medical faculty and taught several courses. In addition to his medical services, he reorganized the censorship of books, reserving books on subjects other than theology, law, and politics for himself. He reorganized the court library and was made chief librarian in 1745.

Despite his many obligations, van Swieten still found time to work on his Commentaria, of which he had completed the first two volumes (1742, 1745) while in Leiden. This work, which documents Boerhaave’s lectures, is not a straightforward transcription but, rather, a series of commentaries on Boerhaave’s Aphorisms5. Therefore, it is not always clear which parts of the text are based on Boerhaave’s lectures and which are van Swieten’s own. The Commentaria, which greatly contributed to the dissemination of Boerhaave’s ideas beyond the circle of his pupils, was reprinted many times and was translated into four languages.

Among van Swieten’s contributions to medicine was his modification of the traditional treatment of venereal disease with mercurials; his specific, liquor Swietenii, which could be taken orally, made the treatment much less painful.6. He managed to over-come the aversion of the Vienna physicians to inoculation against smallpox, which was introduced to Austria in 1768 by Jan Ingen-Housz. During the Seven Years War (1756–1763) van Swieten wrote a book on the diseases of the army.

Van Swieten’s activities were mainly organizational and political; but his role in establishing the great Vienna school of medicine and his dissemination of Boerhaave’s ideas by means of his Commentaria entitle him to a place in the history of science.

The name Swietenia was given to a genus of the Meliaceae family by Nicolas Jacquin. Swietenia mahogani is the mahogany tree.


1. An ancestor, Adriaen van Swieten (1532–1584), was one of the signers of the Compromise of Breda (“League of Nobles”) in 1566, which heralded the Dutch Revolution, and was responsible for dividing the family into two branches of opposing religions. Catholics were not eligible for positions in the government during the Dutch Republic, and the Roman Catholic religion was forbidden in Holland in 1573. The role of the nobility during the Republic was mainly governmental; therefore, unless a Catholic noble family had landed property, as the van Swietens did not, their noble status became meaningless.

In some history books, especially on church history, it is stated that van Swieten was a Jansenist. This is, however, by no means proved.

2. According to Baldinger, there were twelve other students in his class. and van Swieten surpassed all of them at the age of sixteen.

3. According to Baldinger.

4. According to Baumann, this was Adriaan van Royen (1704–1779), from 1729 lecturer on botany and from 1732 professor of medicine and chemistry. Brechka states that it probably was David van Royen (1699–1764), who was secretary to the curators of the university from 1725.

5.Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morbis (Leiden, 1709), In the 3rd ed. (Leiden, 1715) the number of aphorisms reached 1,495.

6.Liquor Swieteniiwas a solution of about 0.1 percent by weight of mercurous chloride in alcohol.


II. Original Works, Van Swieten’s stenographic records of Boerhaave’s lectures were inherited by Anton von Störck and are now in the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A copy is in the Rijksmuseum voor de Geschidenis der Natuurwetenschappen, Leiden, which also has transcriptions made by E. C. van Leersum, who broke the code. Swieten’s extensive library was bought after his death by Empress Maria Theresa for 18,000 florins (Sandifort, 10 887), and is now in the Austrian National Library.

Van Swieten’s earliest published work was De arte fabrica et efficacia in corpore humano (Leiden, 1725), his disseration. His major book in Commentaria in Hermanni Boerhaave Aphorismos de cognoscendis et curandis morbis, 5 vols. (Leiden, 1742–1772). Vol. I went through 4 eds., II, 3 eds., and III, 2 eds. For the numerous other Latin eds., see Lindeboom (1959), nos. 208–235.

The Dutch trans. is Verklaaring der korte stellingen van Herman Boerhaave over de kennis en de geneezing der ziektens, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1760–1763), also 10 vols. (1776–1791). The German trans. is Erläuterattgen der Boerhaavischen Lehrsältze von Erkenntniss und Heilung der Krankheiten, 5 vols. (Vienna-Frankfurt-Leipzig, 1755–1775). The French trans. Commentaires des Aphorismes d’Hermann Boerhaave sur la connaissance et la cure des maladies, 7 vols. (Paris, 1765-1768), also 2 vols. (Avignon, 1766). The English trans. is The Commentaries Upon the Aphorisms of Dr. Herman Boerhaave, Concerning the Knowledge and Cure of Several Diseases. Incident to Human Bodies, 18 vols. (London, 1744–1773), also 11 vols. (1754–1759), 14 vols. (1759–1765, and 1771–1773), and 18 vols. (Edinburgh, 1776).

Some parts of the Commentaria on specific subjects were published under separate titles. Aphorismes de chirurgie, 5 vols. (Paris, 1753), also 7 vols. (1753–1756)and 5 vols. (1768): Hermanna Boerhaave’s Kurzgefasste Lehrsaätze von Erkenntniss und Heilung der sogenannten chirurgischen Krankheiten, 2 vols. (Danzig, 1753); Traité du scorbut, devisé en trois parties, 2 vols. (Paris, 1756, 1783, 1788, 1837); Traité des maladies des enfants. . . (Avignon, 1759); Traté de la péripeneumonie(Paris, 1760); Traité de la pleurésie (Paris, 1763); Traité des fiévres intermittents (Paris, 1766); Maladies des femmes et des enfans, avec un traité des accouchements. 2 vols. (Paris, 1769); Traité de la petite vérole (Paris, 1776); and Erläuterung der Boerhaavischen Lehrsätze der Chirurgie, 2 vols. (Frnakfurt, 1778).

The last work published during his lifetime was Kurze Beschreihmrg und Heilungsart der Krankheiten, welche am ötesten in dem Feldlager beobachtet werden (Vienna, 1758), translated into Dutch as Korte beschrijving en geneeswijze der ziekten die veelzints in de krijgsheirlegers voorkomen (Amsterdam, 1760, 1764, 1772, 1780, 1790; Bruges, 1765), into Italian as Breve descrizione delle malattie che regnano piu communemente nella armate e del metodo trattarle (Naples, 1761, 1768), and into French as Description abrégé des maladies qui regnent le plus communément dans les armées, avec la méthode de les traiter (Bruges, 1765); an English trans. (1762) also is mentioned.

Posthumous works are Oratio de morte dubia (Vienna, 1778); Considerazione intorno alla pretesa magia postuma per servire alla storia di vampiri (Naples, 1781); and Constitutiones epidemicae, et morbi postissimum, Lugduni Batavorum observati, ex ejusdem adversaiis (Vienna-Leipzig, 1782; Geneva, 1783).

II. Secondary Literature. See the follwing, listed chronologically: E. G. Baldinger, Lobrden all den Freilberrn Gerhard Van Swieten ... (Jena, 1772), abrev. Dutch trans. by E. Sandifort in Natuur en geneeskundige bibliotheek. . . 10 (1773), 205–215; I. Wurz, Trauerrede auf den hochwohlgeborenen Herrn Gerard van Swieten als Zensor, nach archivalichen Quellen (Vienna, 1877); C. von Wurzbach, “Freiherr Gerhard van Swieten, in Biographisches Lexicon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich XLI (1880), 37–50: W. Müller, Gerard van Swieten, Biographiscltes Beitrag zur Geschichte der Aufklärung in Oesterreich (Vienna, 1883); and E. C. van Leersum: “Gerard van Swieten en qualitä de censcur,”in Janus, 11 (1906), 381–398, 446–469, 501–522, 588–606; “A couple of Letters of Gerard van Swieten on the liquor Swietenii and on the Inoculation of smallpox,” ibid., 15 (1910), 345–371; and “Boerhave’s dictaten, inzonderheid zijne klinische lessen. Met een beschrijving van Gerard van Swieten’s stenografische nalatenschap,”in Nederlands tijdschrift voor geneeskunde, 63 (1919), 50–76.

Also see J. J. van der Kley, “G. van Swieten’s Constitutiones epidemicae et morbi potissimum, Lugduni Batavorum observati,” in Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis der geneeskunde, 1 (1921), 286–292; V. Kreutzinger,“Zum 150 Todestage Gerhard von Swieten,”in Janus, 26 (1922), 177–189; H. Pinkhof,“Een advies van Gerard van Swieten,”in Bijdrugen tot de geschiedenis der geneekunde, 3 (1923), 189-190 ; G . van Leeuwen, “Gerard van Swieten", Nieuw Nederlandsch biografisch woordenboek, X (1937), 1005–1006; H. T. van Heuveln, Gerard van Swieten, Leben, Werk und Kampf (Veendam, 1942); H. Sandra,“De leer der phthisis bij de oude Nederlandsche schrijvers,”in Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis der geneeskunde, 23 (1943), 40–46 : L . Schünbauer, Das medizinische Wien (Vienna, 1947). G. A . Lindeboom, “Gerard van Swieten als hervormer der Weensche medische faculteit,” in Bijdrugen tot de geschiedenis der geneeskuncle, 30 30 (1950), 12–20; E. D. Baumann, Drie eeuwen Nederlandsche Geneeskunde (Amsterdam, 1951), 222–225; W. Böhm, Universitas Vindobonensis (Vienna, 1952); G. A. Lindeboom, Bibliographia Boerhaaviana (Leiden, 1959), 47–54; F. T. Brechka, Gerard van Swieten and His World, 1700–1772 (The Hague, 1970); D. Willemse, “Gerard van Swieten in zijn brieven aan Antonio Nunes Ribeiro Sanches (1739–1754),” in Scientiarium historia, 14 (1972), 113–143; and G. A. Lindeboom,“Het consult van Gerard van Swieten voor aartshertogin Marianne van Oostenrijk, de zuster van Maria Theresia,” ibid., 97–111;“Gerard van Swieten, Herr und Landstand Von Tirol,”in “Aldler”Zeitschrift für Genealogie und Heraldik, 9 (1972), 187–188;“Acht brieven van Gerard van Swieten uit zijn Hollandsche jaren (1730–1744),”in Scientiarum historia, 15 (1973), 73–89; “De Hollandsche tijd van Gerard van Swieten,”in Nederlandsch tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde, 117 (1973), 1037–1042; and“Gerard van Swieten und seine Zeit,”in Internationales Symposium veranstaltet von der Universität Wien im Institut für Geschichte der Medizin (Vienna, 1973), 63–79.

Peter W. van der Pas