Vigani, John Francis

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(b. Verona, Italy, ca 1650[?]; d. Newark-on-Trend, England, February 1713 [o.s.]), chemistry, pharmacy.

Almost every point concerning Vigani’s life is doubtful, except that on 10 February 1702 [o.s.] the senate of the University of Cambridge conferred upon him the title of professor of chemistry “because he has with much praise practised the art of chemistry among us for twenty years (not without great profit to the studious).” He was the first to hold this title. Vigani therefore came to Cambridge about 1682, although he always lived in Newark with his family and had no formal association with any college. He taught at several, including Queen’s (where his cabinet of materia medica is still preserved) and Trinity (where a laboratory was built for him by the master, Richard Bentley, in 1707). He was on friendly terms with John Covel and other leading men, including Isaac Newton–who took “much delight and pleasure” in his company until Vigani told him an off-color joke. Vigani described himself as Veronnsis and mentioned a visit to Parma in 1671; otherwise nothing is known of his origins. He had no recorded degree or medical license. The years before his settlement in England are said to have been devoted to travel, study, and collecting. He ceased to teach at Cambridge in 1708 and was buried 26 February 1713 [o.s.].

The few contemporary references to Vigani’s teaching on chemistry, the construction of furnaces, and materia medica are favorable; three anonymous sets of lecture notes survive (University Library, ca. 1700; Queens’ College, 1707; and a set formerly owned by Sir C. S. Sherrington, 1705). Vigani’s chemistry may be further studied in his one published work, Medulla chemiae (later chymiae; Danzig, 1682; London, 1683, later editions at London, Leiden, Nuremberg and Basel). It is not known why the first publication was at Danzig; an earlier edition (London, 1658) has been recorded and is not wholly implausible but is not now traceable. The first edition consisted of nineteen pages and the second of seventy-one and included plates of furnaces and apparatus. Vigani was above all a practical working chemist and pharmacist with no interest in theory, referring readers who desired more theoretical discussion to the writings of Robert Boyle. He attended carefully to the purity of materials and was generally cautious or even skeptical; he denied, for example, that antimony is not chemically dissolved into “antimony wine.” Nevertheless, he was confused about such matters as the distillation of vinegar and the identity of gases, which signify “nothing else but a blast or Vapour,” he wrote. Vigani seems to have been completely free of any alchemical tinge. His main object was to teach in a plain and reliable way the methods of preparing useful chemical compounds and pharmaceutical recipes. His cabinet contains an eclectic mixture of vegetable, mineral, animal, and chemical medicaments.


See L. J. M. Coleby, “John Francis Vigani,” in Annals of Science, 8 (1952), 46–60; and E. S. Peck, “Vigani and His Cabinet,” in Cambridge Antiquarian Society Communications, 34 (1934), 34–49.

A. Rupert Hall