Early Science & Alchemy

New School

Robert G. W. Anderson reviews John C. Powers’s Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts.

By Robert G. W. Anderson | December 12, 2012
Herman Boerhaave’s Sermo academicus, de comparando certo in physicis (1715)

Engraving from the title page of Herman Boerhaave’s Sermo academicus, de comparando certo in physicis (1715).

Science History Institute

John C. Powers. Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 272 pp. $40.

Leiden in 1668 was a sizeable, flourishing city of the Low Countries, the lines of merchants’ houses bordering its canals attesting to its wealth. The Dutch Golden Age, a prosperous period marked by a rich artistic and scientific culture, was in full swing. Much of Leiden’s affluence was based on the cloth industry, with printing and publishing also thriving. Leiden’s university had been founded in 1575, and one of its more recent alumni was the noted clockmaker, Christiaan Huygens. Artistic life abounded: Rembrandt van Rijn, born in Leiden in 1606, was living nearby in Amsterdam; Rembrandt’s pupil, Gerrit Dou, founded a Leiden school of painting; Johannes Vermeer worked in Delft, just a short distance from Leiden.

On the last day of 1668 Herman Boerhaave was born in the village of Voorhout, on the edge of Leiden. His father was a preacher, and the family expected the son to follow that calling. Instead, Boerhaave was to become the most influential teacher of medicine and chemistry in early 18th-century Europe, his reputation such that young men flocked to Leiden to learn from him.

At the end of the 17th century, though, Leiden University was suffering from a financial crisis, religious problems, and a medical syllabus in turmoil. Chemistry was considered an adjunct to medicine, not an academic subject in its own right, and was treated as a trade profession by medical faculty. Although the university licensed some chemists to teach extramurally, even these chemists disagreed about what exactly constituted the subject of chemistry. As a student Boerhaave was thrust into this uneasy environment, first studying theology and then medicine before graduating in 1693.

Boerhaave’s scholarly talents were quickly recognized, but initially he made his way as a doctor and a tutor. In 1701 Leiden offered him a lectureship in medicine and in 1702 allowed him to teach chemistry privately. At the time, chemistry was divided into the practical—the making up of drugs—and the theoretical. Boerhaave combined aspects of each, absorbing the teachings of renowned natural philosopher and chemist Robert Boyle and physician Johannes Bohn of Leipzig, who had written a dissertation on “airs.”

In 1703 Boerhaave started a chemistry class that emphasized more general laboratory operations rather than simply concentrating on how specific drugs were made. This new style of chemical teaching would become widely followed in medical education. When he was awarded his first chemistry professorship in 1718, Boerhaave used his inaugural oration to criticize his predecessors for their simplistic assumptions: he believed that mathematics and physics were necessary to understand chemistry; and he developed and demonstrated quantitative experimental methods, showing, for example, how the liquid level of an air thermometer responded to the heat of the human body.

But classes need textbooks, and in Leiden students of chemistry lacked them. In 1724 someone published a transcription of Boerhaave’s lectures. Boerhaave was said to be furious. His continuing annoyance was held to be the reason for his retiring three years later from both the chemistry and botany chairs. But Boerhaave clearly had other reasons: his health was bothering him, and his enthusiasm for teaching had waned. After retiring he attempted to repeat experiments described by alchemical adepts, work that ultimately led him to reject alchemy. Boerhaave’s retirement also allowed him to put together his great Elementa Chemiae, published in 1732. This popular hybrid work reflected his teaching and his experimental research and was soon translated into En-glish, French, German, and Russian.

John C. Powers has provided historians with a work of considerable scholarship on the roots of chemical teaching in the Enlightenment and thereafter. Boerhaave died in 1738 after years of illness, and the Leiden medical school declined in importance by the end of the century, its preeminent position passing to Edinburgh. But, hinting at the legacy explored in this book, the first five professors of the Edinburgh medical faculty had all been taught at Leiden by Boerhaave.