Zwelfer, Johann

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(b. Rhenish Palatinate, 1618;d. Vienna, Austria [?]. 1668)

Pharmacy, chemistry.

After sixteen years as a pharmacist in his native region, Zwelfer went to Padua to study medicine. Upon receiving the M.D. degree he went to Vienna, where he apparently spent the rest of his life. Statements that he taught chemistry and was physician to the court are undocumented. He is first mentioned as the author of a book of corrections to the standard German pharmacopoeia and of an original pharmacopoeia, bopth published in 1652.

Zwelfer has been credited with a few minor chemical innovations: the :purification of calomel (mercurous chloride) by use of a water wash to remove the violently posisonous mercuric chloride, and the preparation of a pure form of iron oxide (crocus martis) by igniting ferrous nitrate. His outstanding contribution, however, was his general influence in reform of the pharmacopoeia. He was the first to write a commentary on a pharmacopoeia-the standard official German work of that genre, the Pharmacopoeia Augustana, which had appeared under the auspices of the Collegium Medicum of Augsburg and was used in Vienna. Like other works of this kind, it was an uncritical compilation of recipes, many of them ancient. The principal controversy involved in the compilation of these works had been whether the new chemical remedies associated with Paracelsus should be included; but this question had been settled, with their inclusion, by the time Zwelfer became active. The next issue was the improvement of the recipes, and he may have been the first to raise it.

In this commentary Zwelfer reveals a bellicose nature in the tradition of Paracelsus. Objections (animadversiones) are made to almost every recipe-and in a tone of sarcasm and invective that aroused not only the Collegium Medicum of Augsburg, but almost everyone mentioned in the book, in cities from Montpellier to Venice. In Venice, Otto Tachenius was inspired by Zwelfer’s criticism of his “volatile viperine salt” to write his Hippocrates chimicus, a more famous book than any Zwelfer ever wrote. The Augsburg Collegium was still sufficiently aroused sixteen years after Zwelfer’s sufficiently aroused sixteen years after Zwelfer’s death to issue, with him in mind, a “renovated and augmented” Pharmacopoeia Augustana.

Zwelfer was ideed intemperate, as Lucas Schrock charges in the preface to the renovated Pharmacopoeia and as is still evident to the reader of these books. “stupid” was his word for the Pharmacopoeia’s recipe for the preparation of “water of lead oxide” (aqua lithargyri) by distillation, and it was a typical comment. But it seems to have been Zwelfer’s choice of words that was at fault, for this recipe is absent from the renovated Pharmacopoeia. As for Tachenius, he was indignant that “Reformer” (as he called Zwelfer) had called him a “cheat” in his commentary on the Pharmacopoeia’s recipe for viperine salt. But Tachenius went on to admit that there was some truth in the remark, for although he personally instructed Zwelfer in the preparation of the salt, he did so only “metaphorically,” feeling it best not to reveal the recipe.


I. Original Works. Zwelfer’s works are Animadversiones in Pharmacopoeia Augustana (Vienna, 1652) and Pharmacopoeia regia (Vienna, 1652).

II. Secondary Literature. Zwelfer is said to have died unlamented, a situation apparently reflected in the standard German and Austrian national biographical dictionaries, in which he is not mentioned. The brief account in C. G. Jocher, Allgemeines Gelehrten-Lexicon, IV (Leipzig, 1751), 2141, has served as the source for most later accounts. J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 292, 296-297, has a little on his chemistry.

R. P. Multhauf