John Wilkins

John_Wilkins

John Wilkins (1614-1672)

In 1655, after he returned to England, Robert Boyle moved to Oxford and joined the scientific group begun by John Wilkins at Wadham College. Although Wilkins was Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, he gathered around him a circle of new scientists with a wide range of political and religious backgrounds. Once in Oxford Boyle dramatically increased his level of activity. He found rooms outside the college, established laboratory space, hired assistants and amanuenses and began several streams of experimental work including a continuation of his alchemical work on metals and his studies of blood and digestion. He also started the series of experiments on “the springiness of air” that would make his reputation as a leading scientific figure. He appears to have connected all his work to health so that even his experiments on air were relevant to his interest in respiration and to provide some understanding of why blood changed colour once it passed through the lungs.

Boyle had already begun to correspond with Thomas Willis, the Helmontian physician with whom Petty had also worked on dissection. It was natural that when Boyle arrived in Oxford Willis became one of Boyle’s many collaborators. Willis had begun his studies at Oxford as a servitor – a student who paid his way by being a servant, most often to other students. He joined the Oxford group in 1648 and spent four years working with Petty. Together they performed autopsies and continued to dissect large numbers of living animals. Petty was a confirmed mechanist who believed that the body was a machine and the best way to understand it was to take it apart. Willis used his alchemical training to reduce blood and other bodily fluids to their more basic Paracelsian components. Under Cromwell his medical practice languished because of his Royalist Anglican sympathies and he was forced to apply his chemical skills as a “pisse-prophet”, a diagnostician of urine samples including tasting them for sweetness. (His practice expanded substantially after the restoration of Charles II to the throne and eventually he became one of the wealthiest practitioners in Oxfordshire. Much of this was due to his secret recipes for drugs that were expensive and apparently effective as well. His influence followed him when he moved to London in 1667 at the request of Archbishop Sheldon. )

 

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