Ulstad, Philipp

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(fl. early sixteenth century)

medicine, alchemy.

Little is known of Philipp Ulstad’s life other than that he was a Nuremberg patrician who taught medicine at the Academy in Fribourg, Switzerland, during the first half of the sixteenth century. Aside from a small treatise on the plague, he published one book of significance for the history of science: Coelum philosophorum . . .(1525). This work was extremely popular, going through more than twenty editions and serving as a standard authority on the preparation and use of distillates for nearly a century. Ulstad emphasized the medical efficacy of chemical distillates, thus departing somewhat from conventional medieval pharmacology and preparing the way, in part, for the more intimate connection between chemistry and medicine effected by his contemporary Paracelsus and the latter’s disciples in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Ulstad’s work was based mainly on the writings attributed to Ramon Lull, Albertus Magnus, Arnald of Villanova, and John of Rupescissa. He was most clearly indebted to John of Rupescissa’s doctrine of the fifth essence, namely, the substance that can be extracted from all mundane bodies by ordinary chemical methods and that is the chemically active principle of each body. Ulstad was primarily concerned with the curative and preservative properties of rectified alcohol-which he denoted variously as the fifth essence, aquavite, aurum potabile, and coelum philosophorum. He maintained that the fifth essence, although not incorruptible, was less corruptible than the four elements and owed its medial value to its ability to regulate the bodily humors and thereby preserve the human body from decay.

Despite his use of alchemical terminology, Ulstad clearly dissociated himself from the enigmatic aspects of the alchemical tradition in offering his concise and rational account of the preparation of distilled remedies. Concerned with culling from the medieval alchemical corpus those techniques and ideas of practical utility, he ensured that they were made available to as large an audience as possible, including all apothecaries, surgeons, and medical doctors.

The lucidity of his technical directions was a major reason for the influence exerted by Ulstad. His discussion of apparatus and manipulative procedures afforded the sixteenth-century investigator an accurate summary of the best distilling theory then available. Of particular importance is Ulstad’s description and woodcut of a distilling column with vertical water-cooled coils that, although not original with him, contributed to the decline of the less efficient and uncontrollable air-cooling methods commonly employed. He also clearly presented a rudimentary dephlegmation technique based on the introduction of oil-soaked sponges into the still head to retain the phlegm and obtain better fractionation. Ulstad’s recipes for the extraction of the fifth essence dealt with a wide variety of sources, including gold, spices, herbs, fruits, flowers, precious stones, and metals, and he specified the particular ailments most responsive to each essence.

A codifier rather than an innovator, Ulstad contributed to the rise of iatrochemistry by demonstrating that drugs and other medicinals depend for their efficacy upon spirits or essences that can be extracted upon pure spirits or essences that can be extracted by the methods of chemistry. His ideas reappear in the writings of many prominent scientific figures, including Konard Gesner and Andread Libavius.


I. Original Works. Ulstad’s major book is Coelum philosophorum seu de secretis naturae liber (Fribourg, 1525; 1st French trans., Paris, 1546; 1st German trans. , Strasbourg, 1527). The later editions and translations have more elaborate titles. I have used the following edition: Le Ciel des Philosophes, ou sont contenus les secrets de nature et comme l’homme se peult tenir en santÉ, et longuement vivre . . . extraict des livers de Arnould de Ville neurve, du grand Albert, Raymont Lulle, Jehan de la Roche TranchÉe (Pairs, 1550). Ulstad’s other work is De epidemia tractatus (Basel, 1526).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no full-scale biography of Ulstad. Details concerning his work are found in Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, V (New York, 1941), 541–542, 602,621; James R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 84–86; J. Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica, II (Glasgow, 1906), 482–483; and Edward R. Atkinson and Arthur H. Hughes, “The ’Coelum Philosophorum’ of Philipp Ulstad,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 16 (1939), 103–107. R. J. Forbes, Short History of the Art of Distillation (Leiden, 1948), 127–130, states that Ulstad was probably an associate of Hieronymus Brunschwig, although he gives no proof for the claim.

Martin Fichman