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. )



Robert Boyle as Patient and Scientist


For us Robert Boyle is of particular interest in examining ideas of health during the Scientific Revolution because he was, “arguably the most influential figure in the emerging culture of late 17th century Britain.” (Hunter, Scrupulosity page 1.) He was also sick for most of his life and was under the care of many physicians. His illnesses were chronic and debilitating from a relatively early age. There is little doubt that he believed that scientific and alchemical research could find a cure and that faith would save his soul forever.

Boyle scholarship became reinvigorated in the late 20th century as his papers began once more to be carefully reviewed, and the pace of study accelerated. We now have a growing account of the many influences on his scientific thought and a good basis for considering how he, as a scientist, a religious person, and a patient thought about health. This can expand our growing understanding of health during his time (and our own).

Boyle was the youngest of seven sons among the 14 children of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork (1566-1643), “one of the richest and most influential men in Britain.”( pXXI Works v 1)  His father accumulated great wealth by leveraging his position as the Lord High Treasurer of Ireland into one of the largest landholdings in the country. He established towns on his accumulated property, built castles, hired a large private army to defend his holdings, and mined his estates for minerals to increase his income. The elder Boyle was 61, wealthy and titled when Robert was born. He was raised as an aristocrat and was sent to a wet nurse in the country for the first years of his life to give him a better chance to survive infancy and to keep him away to avoid premature emotional attachment. Because his mother died when he was three, he had very little contact with her. He also hardly knew his father who sent him to Eton from the age of 8. When he was twelve in 1639, he and his brother Francis were sent on a grand tour of Europe with Isaac Marcombes as their governor and tutor. Even after visiting much of Europe, Boyle stayed with Marcombes until 1643 when he was sixteen, partly because of unsettled conditions in Ireland and partly because funds for his return travel were stolen by their messenger. His father died in 1643 while Robert was in Europe, having fallen out of favour and lost control over some of his fortune but leaving a substantial inheritance nonetheless.

During a thunderstorm in Switzerland, Boyle had a profound religious experience which molded his religious feeling and had a lasting impact on his intellectual outlook. Throughout his life he continually tried to integrate his deep religious beliefs with his scientific work. His concern for scrupulous honesty in observation, his fear of oaths which could not be fulfilled, his concern about the atheistic consequence of some scientific positions all contributed to his rather complex scientific and religious thinking.

Boyle returned to England in 1644 at the age of 17. After his return he resumed a close connection to his older sister Katherine, spent a considerable amount of his time settling his share of his father’s legacy and establishing himself at Stalbridge, the Boyle family estate. His sister introduced Boyle to Samuel Hartlib (c.1600-1662), the German born “intelligencer” who gathered and disseminated information about scientific practices and innovations in such diverse fields as chemistry, animal husbandry and medicine. Hartlib was an advocate of the formal collection and documentation of all useful knowledge (panosophy) into what came later to be the History of Trades project of the Royal Society to gather practical information in all the areas advocated by Bacon in The New Atlantis. He also perpetuated Bacon’s vision of a science that was led by natural philosophers rather than clerics. The circle surrounding Hartlib met to exchange information and seek help in their projects. Early on Boyle, for example, attempted to apply some of Hartlib’s modern methods of animal husbandry at his estate.

For Hartlib, physicians and others involved in health care had skills and knowledge and were considered to be artisans or tradesmen with practical knowledge of their particular pursuit. They knew how to prepare remedies and what must be done to help people improve their health, or prevent illness. Collecting and recording their knowledge and skills fit comfortably into Hartlib’s overall ambition. One element of Boyle’s understanding of health learned from Hartlib was that there were practical procedures and remedies that could prevent illness, improve health, and, if necessary, cure disease. And this strand of Boyle’s interest continued throughout his life. He purchased formulae for remedies of all kinds, consulted a wide array of health care providers, and tried out a multitude of potential cures on himself and his family.

Quite a lot of the practical knowledge of the time was made up of trade secrets. Many practitioners including physicians kept their recipes for remedies, elixirs and tonics to themselves because their exclusivity contributed to their livelihood. But there were also thought to be even deeper secrets that would allow one to make universal elixirs that could cure all disease and preserve youth. By this time Boyle also believed the there was a Philosopher’s Stone.

Boyle corresponded frequently with Hartlib and considered his circle to be an “invisible college.” Members of this group were in frequent contact with each other. It included collectors of health remedies such as a Benjamin Worsley (1617-77) and the Boate brothers, Gerard (1604-1650) and Arnold (1606-1653) who furnished Boyle with numerous recipes. It also included people interested in the new science like William Petty (1626-1687), who with Boyle and others was a founder member of the Royal Society. Boyle’s communication with this group almost certainly sparked his interest in chemistry, and his desire to build a laboratory at Stalbridge.

By the late 1640’s Boyle had a growing interested in the new experimental science and was beginning to gather information that could contribute to it. He also contemplated a search for the Philosopher’s Stone. These facets of his beliefs and activities continued to evolve throughout his life. Up until 1649 his writings were literary and religious rather than scientific, though his failed efforts to establish an alchemical laboratory and seek the Philosopher’s Stone are mentioned in letters to his sister Katherine (Viscountess Ranelagh) in 1647 where the fragmentation of his oven is compared to the religious fragmentation of the day.

That great furnace whose conveying hither has taken up so much of my care….has been brought to my hands crumbled into as many pieces as we into sects, and all the fine experiments and castles in the air I had built upon its safe arrival have felt the fate of their foundation. Well I see I am not designed to the finding out the Philosopher’s Stone, I have been so unlucky in my first attempts in chemistry. (Hunter Correspondence vol. 1 page 50)


In 1649 he contracted a case of the ague (a severe fever, most likely malaria) from which he almost died, and from that point on he suffered from ill health. He developed tremors in his hands so that he could not write and his voice became much weakened so that one had to strain to hear him. In another letter to his sister in 1649, written while he was recovering in Bath, he declared his acceptance of God’s will about life and death.

What [God] has decreed of me, He best knows, for my part, I shall pray for a perfect resignation to his [blessed] Will, and a resembling acquiescence in it. And I hope Spirit will so conform me to his dispensations that I may cheerfully by his assignment, either continue my work, or ascend to receive my wages. (page 80 Correspondence vol 1 Letter to his sister Lady Ranelagh from Bath August 2 1649)


His illness marked an important turning point. After it his interest in science and medicine became intense – his first nonliterary manuscript is a series of “Memorialls Philosophicall,” a collection of recipes and formulae begun in January 1650. It contained mostly medical remedies, many of them for fever. Some examples include the use of nutmeg and alum, or cobwebs and snails for the ague, and a poultice for the feet guaranteed to cure the fever “prepared by pounding leaven, onions and garlic, and pigeon dung into a paste with turpentine.” (Newman and Principe p.216) These remedies are fairly typical of the traditional herbal and organic remedies widely employed by empirics as well as physicians at the time.

He succeeded in outfitting his first laboratory in Stalbridge in the summer of 1649. The critical piece of apparatus was the oven capable of keeping a high temperature for long periods of time and doing alchemical metallurgical work. In a letter to his sister the oven’s marvels are ecstatically described. (Letter of 31 Aug 1649)

It was soon after his illness that Boyle had his first contact with George Starkey (1628-1665), through Robert Child (1613-54) another member of the Hartlib circle. Starkey was an American graduate of Harvard University who had trained as a Helmontian physician and alchemist. It seems that Boyle first consulted Starkey about his health, but their relationship soon evolved and Starkey began to introduce Boyle to the fundamentals of laboratory work, alchemy and Helmontian medicine. It was from Starkey that Boyle collected a large number of iatrochemical remedies and alchemical preparations in the Paracelsian and Helmontian tradition. Starkey brings together many of the strands of Boyle’s thinking. Starkey is a deep believer in the need for God’s help in the quest for unearthing the secrets of nature. He is also a gifted experimental chemist and so he can test the results of these revelations to see if he has got them right. And his objective coincides with one of Boyle’s – to discover and make use of the Philosopher’s Stone. Starkey believes, with Boyle that the fruits of this labour should be widely disseminated and used to improve the human condition. Starkey also believes that the secrets of how to create the Philosopher’s Stone, should be carefully guarded, so that it is not abused and converted from its “luciferous” or light giving role into a “lucriferous” or merely commercial application for the benefit of a few.

In his letters of 1651 and 1652, having taken Boyle into his confidence, Starkey repeatedly describes many chemical cures as the products of his alchemical work. He refers to the “Philosopher’s Elixir”, universal cures for disease and claims in several letters to have created the universal solvent, the alkahest, which reduces material to its basic (lowest) constituents. It is a major step in the process of creating the Philosopher’s Stone and the transmutation of such base materials into (the highest) and most pure materials, such as gold. In the surviving letters it is evident that Starkey’s alchemical pursuit has as its objective the discovery of a universal cure as much as it is for the creation of gold. Starkey boasts of using the alkahest to create a special kind of sulfur (one of Paracelsus’ philosophical elements) which will contribute to these objectives and tells Boyle that with it

you will clothe paupers and I heal the desperate among them. I prophesy that you will be nobler than van Helmont and Paracelsus himself, for whatever things I have found are yours, not because I solicit your munificence, which is very great in this, but from that sincere love and honour (in which I attend you). January 1652


Here Starkey appears to refer to the creation of gold with which Boyle will be able to enrich the poor. Starkey takes for himself the use of the panacea with which he will heal the hopelessly ill. This passage also strongly suggests that Boyle has funded this work through his “munificence” (You will remember that this is a philanthropic virtue only available to the wealthy).

Boyle was an ideal “virtuoso.” He was a gentleman-scientist of the first order. His wealth, aristocratic background and connections to political power contributed mightily to his position in the scientific world. His wealth allowed him to support his many activities, and his aristocratic connections gave him wide political and social access. Throughout his life Boyle supported the research efforts of many individuals, the establishment of laboratories, as well as religious and charitable works such as translating the bible and spreading the gospel to other parts of the world. He purchased recipes from healers, hired amanuenses (secretaries), “laborants” and “operators” (technicians) to support his research and writing. There is some lack of clarity as to whether Starkey’s relationship with Boyle was as a collaborator or as an operator. Starkey viewed himself as a collaborator, but Boyle never publicly acknowledged his debt to him and may very well have thought of him as a hired technician. Boyle also did not adhere to Starkey’s demand for secrecy and transmitted much of the material entrusted to him to other members of the Hartlib circle. There has been some speculation about why he did not keep Starkey’s secrets. Some concluded that he must have paid for Starkey’s work and so considered him to be his operator, others that he was trying to steal the glory for himself, still others that he felt a greater loyalty to his colleagues in the invisible college, and even that the college was itself a secret organization that would keep the secrets and then decide what to disseminate and what to keep hidden on the Baconian model. What is clear is that Boyle valued the results he received from Starkey and referred to them for much of his career. Starkey was instrumental in strengthening Boyle’s lifelong efforts to find the Philosopher’s Stone, although his contact with Boyle diminished when Boyle went to Ireland in 1652 in order to help settle the Irish part of his father’s estate. Starkey’s experimental efforts continued during this time and without Boyle’s support he amassed debts that he could not repay and was finally jailed as a debtor. Letters to Boyle from members of Hartlib’s circle advised him of Starkey’s fate and may have succeeded in discrediting him, for there is so far no evidence of their further collaboration. Starkey later returned to medical practice and died of the plague while caring for patients in London during the plague year of 1665.

Boyle’s intensive experimental activity continued even while he was in Ireland for almost the entire period of 1652-1654.  In Ireland the lack of a furnace forced him away from his chemical work. William Petty who had left England to be the physician-general of the army in Ireland and was an expert at dissection, joined Boyle to dissect hundreds of live dogs to confirm Harvey’s description of the circulation of blood and to learn more about the digestive process. The trip to Ireland secured Boyle’s fortune, probably with Petty’s help and Cromwell’s approval. Petty himself went on to become the surveyor general of Ireland and amassed his own enormous fortune.

Boyle suffered a second severe fever in 1654 when he fell off a horse in bad weather, which resulted in the permanent deterioration of his vision. His condition was such that few manuscripts after 1654 are written in his own hand.[Hunter, 2000 #414] Almost all were prepared by secretaries (amanuenses) who would accompany him as he engaged in his experimental work and record his dictation. While recovering in 1654, he wrote to Frederick Clodius (1625-1661), Samuel Hartlib’s son-in-law, who was a physician and an alchemist. He declared his unfitness to travel, asked for advice about his illness and discussed several possible remedies, including ones for kidney stones which apparently was yet another ailment adding to his chronic discomfort. (ref) Boyle understandably had an ongoing concern for his own health (which later deteriorated even more after a severe stroke in 1670), and a strong interest in health related research.

Medicine in the 17th Century, Cont’d


Johann Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644)

Paracelsus was the primary influence on this Belgian physician-alchemist. Van Helmont was a Paracelsian who used chemical medicines and had a strong interest in alchemy, but revised and elaborated many of Paracelsus’ positions including the nature and number of elements and his explanation of disease. His experimental work included attempts to show that water was an even more basic constituent of matter than Paracelsus’ three philosophical principles of sulfur, mercury and salt. In one famous experiment he planted a willow seed in 100 kilograms of earth, added only water for several years and found that the tree now weighed 75 kilograms while the weight of the earth did not significantly change. Van Helmont denied the explanatory value of Aristotelian final causes but believed something quite similar. The seed contained an archeus, a kind of spirit that could transmute water into willow. He held that there were many different kinds of archei each functioning in this seed-like way. In the body they transmuted food into blood through a process of digestion or fermentation. As external agents archei could enter the body to cause disease by a process of putrefaction. Much of van Helmont’s experimental laboratory work reduced various substances to discover the gases that contained their archei and to produce medicines to counteract their effects.

Van Helmont’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone was an attempt to find the ultimate seed, one that would transmute base metals into gold, but more importantly would function as a panacea by finding a spirit that could cure all ills. His methods, like those of Paracelsus were dependent on mystical visions as well as laboratory experiments. A step toward finding the Philosopher’s Stone was the chemical formation of the alkahest, a kind of counter Philosopher’s stone which was a universal solvent that could ferment or digest material into its basic (lowest) constituents.

Paracelsus, through van Helmont had a growing number of followers in England who were especially interested in iatrochemistry and alchemy, including George Thomson (1617-1677) and the young American George Starkey (1628-1665).


(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Baldwin Haney (1600-1676)

By the middle of the 17th century, the views of Galen, Paracelsus and Descartes had all become part of the then current understanding of medicine and the human body. However academic physicians continued to be trained as Galenists and they dominated the medical schools, the Royal College of Physicians and were the practitioners to the wealthy. Baldwin Haney (1600-1676) whose wonderful portrait is by Anthony van Dyck is an excellent example of the wealthy physicians who were members of the College.

William_PettyThomas_WillisAnne Greene

William Petty (1623-1687)Thomas Willis (1621-1675) Anne Greene (1628-1665).

In the famous case of Anne Greene, Thomas Willis, William Petty and some medical students who were studying anatomy with them,  revived her after she had been hung for the murder of her illegitimate child (a crime she did not commit). Her body was given to them for dissection, but as they prepared her, they found that she was still breathing. They used humoral techniques to revive her: they poured hot cordial down her (cold) throat, bled her, rubbed her limbs and applied hot plasters.

As we have seen, the three academic medical influences at the time came from Galen, Paracelsus and Descartes. Each was accompanied by a metaphorical picture of health which retains some currency today. The first saw health as a good balance among the humours, the second as appropriate chemical composition, and the third as a smooth running machine. Regardless of their primary orientation many physicians had absorbed and included aspects of each of these three positions, and most employed remedies that were a mixture of all three. The complexity surrounding their ideas about health derived from the intermingling of these different ways of thinking. The theoretical differences among the academic physicians meant little to the vast majority who could not afford expensive doctors.


William Harvey and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital


William Harvey (1578-1657) and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

William Harvey was a careful experimentalist who observed the heart’s activity, proved that blood circulates in the body and that the heart functions as a pump to pulsate blood through the arteries and that the blood returns to the heart through the veins. Harvey had studied and done his early research in Italy and benefited from the more liberal dissection practices and more advanced understanding of anatomy. His discovery was a major revision to the Galenic account that there were two systems of blood: the natural system which was fed by the liver and absorbed by the body and the vital system in which blood flowed from the heart, was cooled by the lungs and distributed heat and life to all parts of the body through the arteries. Harvey was a member of the Royal College of Physicians of London that had been founded in 1518, functioned as a guild in its early days and was an important step in the professionalization of doctors. From a patient’s point of view Harvey’s post as Physician in Charge of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital from 1609 until his death is a critical part of his accomplishment. While at St. Barts he provided free care to the poor, was Royal Physician to the King, maintained a lucrative practice to the rich, and did much of his research. This was early in a long medical tradition of practicing and doing research while caring for the poor while also earning a good living from the well off.

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

Early hospitals functioned as poorhouses. St. Bartholomew’s which was founded in 1123 was among the oldest hospitals in Europe. During the Reformation it was defunded and then reopened by Henry VIII as the “House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation” in 1547. And in the tradition of medicine, academic doctors used the hospital as a research and teaching site, although there was no medical school there until the 19th century.

René Descartes and Rational Mechanism

Descartes’ ideas about the nature of matter and of the world are not like Bacon’s. He introduces the notion of the body as a machine: “ also the human body may be considered as a machine so built and composed of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin that even if there were no mind in it, it would not cease to move in all the ways it does at present when it is not moved under the direction of the will.” (Descartes René, Philosophical Essays Meditations Bobbs Merrill 1964 page 138)  However Descartes, like Bacon is deeply interested in health. “The preservation of health has always been the principle end of my studies” (CSMK III 275) Part of the attraction of the idea of the body as mechanism was that it would allow for a rational medicine. If a healthy body is a smoothly running machine, then medical interventions would be much like mechanical ones. He therefore hoped to devise “a system of medicine which is founded on infallible demonstrations.” (CSMK III 17).  Descartes proposes a program of division of effort in research and publication that has become a dominant influence on medicine ever since. In the Discourse on Method he makes an early proposal for a program of work to derive the medical benefits of his approach.

It is true that medicine at present contains little of such great value; but without intending to belittle it, I am sure that everyone, even among those who follow the profession, will admit that everything we know is almost nothing compared with what remains to be discovered, and that we might rid ourselves of an infinity of maladies of body as well as of mind, and perhaps also of the enfeeblement of old age, if we had sufficient understanding of the causes from which these ills arise and of all the remedies which nature has provided. (575) [63] Discourse page 46


For Descartes knowledge must carry certainty: he will achieve knowledge by deriving it from first principles which are themselves certain. This method can apply to any area liable to the impact of reason, including medicine.

This approach sets the project of medicine for the next 300 years. It considers the body to be a mechanical device that can be learned about and understood entirely apart from the person who, as it were, inhabits it. Gilbert Ryle describes that person as a ghost in a machine. Such a project can study the body without considering the person at all. They are completely separate, and, according to Descartes, connected only at the pineal gland. This gives medicine a free rein to study the body and its health as distinct from the person who lives in it. This utter separation of body and mind has a powerful effect on the relationship between physicians and patients. If the Cartesian project succeeds then a healthy body is relatively independent of the patient who inhabits it and the physician who is the expert about the body must have the authority to deal with it. It is Descartes who gives our bodies over to scientific medicine, and turns us into patients. We will remain passive subjects well into the 20th century.

Viewing the body as a machine was a very fruitful way of thinking about it. The approach has led to many successes in the history of medicine, from the view of the heart as a pump, to the idea of the digestive tract as part of a food processing plant with plumbing spigots and drains.

Research on the bio-mechanical framework flourished. Later in the 17th century Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek will use the newly developed microscope to learn about the nature of cells. Robert Boyle will use Hooke’s pump to explore respiration and circulation. He will confirm Harvey’s results about the circulation of the blood.  Descartes is a great influence on future investigations of the body. Boyle and his medical colleagues dissected hundreds, if not thousands of live dogs and other animals to try to learn more about the mechanics of the body. The hunt for human cadavers became more intense and medical education included far more anatomical studies. Schools of anatomy under people like John Hunter flourished. Galen, who had dissected only animals, was shown to be mistaken about the many organs which differ in humans and animals. Cadavers were bought, stolen and sold.  Researchers and medical students were always at the scene of public executions to gain access to bodies immediately after death. In the famous case of Anne Greene, medical students revived her after she had been hung for the murder of her illegitimate child.

Health in England During the Scientific Revolution

The level of mortality of 17th century England was far higher than it is today. English life expectancy at birth the first half of the century was 36.4 years. If one succeeded in living until 30 one could expect to live another 30 years. In London the situation was worse. The high rate of mortality was comprised of infant deaths: (Between 149 and 160 of every thousand infants died in the first year of life), a high level of maternal mortality, and death as a result of epidemics of plague and the ague (various fevers like malaria). Apart from immigration, the population of London was actually declining during this period.

Added to the mortality figures, the state of health of the living was also poor. Those who survived the various epidemics and fevers suffered from uncomfortable chronic conditions for much of their lives. Morbidity affected all classes especially in cities. A person from the working class was old by the age of 40. The biographies of most of the luminaries of the period point out their individual ill health, but few recognize how widespread ill health was among the general population. The diaries and memoirs of the time give many indications of the fact that the vast majority of those who lived beyond 40 suffered from debilitating chronic conditions. We will review only a few of the major figures, most of whom lived with chronic diseases into old age.

  • Francis Bacon, like many of his contemporaries, was in somewhat delicate health because he had survived serious fevers and other more minor complaints at frequent intervals, and famously died at age 65 of a chill trying to find out how long a chicken could be preserved by stuffing it with snow.
  • René Descartes escaped early morning classes as a child because of his poor health and later expressed a strong interest in the health consequences of his work. He died on February 11, 1660 at the age of 54 from a serious respiratory infection he contracted in the draughty castle of Queen Christina of Denmark.
  • Thomas Hobbes’ poor health until he was forty was followed by an increasing palsy that made his hands tremble so that he was forced, like Bacon before him, to dictate his writings. He lived to the ripe old age of 81.
  • John Locke (died age 71), himself a physician, was asthmatic and was given detailed regimens by Thomas Sydenham, who sent him to the country for long periods of recuperation.
  • Robert Hooke’s biographers describe his poor health as an infant and child and his stooped walk as a result of a malformed spine. His diaries record his constant struggle with a number of chronic and uncomfortable conditions including “giddiness, indigestion, flatulence, blockages in his nose and ears, occasional loss of the sense of taste and smell, headaches, heart palpitations, sore and watery eyes, noises in the head, fevers, chills and insomnia.”(Bio page 145) When well, he always attributed his recovery to God’s intervention. (Jardine page 89-90). Hooke died at 68.
  • Among Thomas Sydenham’s works was his clinical account of gout, based largely on his own experience.( Died at 65)

It is hardly surprising that many active participants in the scientific revolution had a strong interest in health issues and participated actively in research associated with it. The widespread incidence of ill health and chronic disease was tied to the hope that the new science would unlock some of nature’s secrets about the maintenance and recovery of health. There were some very powerful patients in the seventeenth century.

Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon proposed methods of investigation which concentrated on observation and inductive reasoning rather than arguments by analogy. Historians have argued that his legal background led him to clarify the distinction between “fact” and “law” and hence to recognize the importance of empirical evidence as distinct from metaphysical speculation. These ideas were among the seeds of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Though he did little experimentation himself, Bacon clearly valued it, and argued for the systematic collection of experimental results and other scientifically relevant information.

Bacon believed that science should be “luciferous” and shed light on the secrets of nature, but also “fructiferous” and enable man to gather the fruits of this study by regaining dominion over nature that had been lost after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. He allowed for a very wide array of investigative procedures and extended the notion of scientific authority to include all those who could gather and disseminate valid observations. This included connecting scientific study to the state rather than the church. As a result “natural philosophers” no longer had to be clerics but could include aristocrats and craftsmen, like goldsmiths who had particular skills, physicians with collections of remedies and others. In The New Atlantis he described Solomons’s House, that part of a utopian society which gathered information about “the sciences, arts, manufactures, and inventions of all the world,” engaged in experimentation and elaborated the fullest extent of human knowledge.

His contribution to the new science has been widely recognized for centuries, but the extent of the influence on him of such earlier thinkers as Paracelsus has only become clear over the last hundred years. For example, he shared with Paracelsus a belief not only in observation and experiment, but also in astrology and in the less modern notion of “natural magic,” which is largely a positive force meant to “marry Heaven and Earth” (Pagel page 38) by the application of divine forces in human affairs. These are secrets of nature that will allow humans to regain their dominion over nature after their expulsion from Eden. Some of these pieces of knowledge can be obtained only with the help of divine agency and the use of natural magic. The leaders of Solomon’s House must decide “which of these shall be published and which not, and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret…” (reference in the New Atlantis Works Volume 1 page 215

Bacon followed Paracelsus in his abiding belief in the possible transmutation of gold and in the use of gold for the purposes of prevention of disease and prolongation of life. His writing includes recipes for making gold and for medical potions containing gold. “Gold is given in three Formes; Either in that, which they call Aurum potabile; Or in Wine wherein Gold hath beene quenched; Or in Gold, in the Substance; such as are Leafe Gold, and the Filings of Gold.” (Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626.: Historie naturall and experimentall, of life and death. Or of the prolongation of life. Written in Latine by the Right Honorable Francis Lo. Verulam, Vis-count St. Alban. (page 166-167)).

There is no doubt about Bacon’s influence on the founders of the Royal Society in 1660. He is depicted as the figure on the right in the frontispiece of the contemporary history of the Royal Society


He even had a direct connection to Thomas Hobbes, who was never admitted to the Society. Aubrey in his Brief Lives tells of their meetings:

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Lord Chancellor Bacon loved to converse with him. Hobbes assisted his lordship in translating several of his essays into Latin… His lordship was a very contemplative person, and was wont to contemplate in his delicious walks at Gorhambury….His lordship would often say that he better liked Mr. Hobbes’s taking his thoughts on paper, than any of the others, because he understood what he wrote, which the others not understanding, my lord would many times have a hard task to make sense of what they wrote.  (Aubrey, Lives  Hobbes)

Bacon’s influence went beyond England to all of Europe and the ideas that led towards a new science are now felt to have affected René Descartes’ (1596-1650) thinking about a new science. It certainly helped Descartes to spurn the previous approaches and to see the need for a new way of thinking, and especially to aim for its practical consequences. “It is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life; and that instead of the speculative philosophy now taught in the schools we can find a practical one….and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.” Discourse Part six page 45 (574) [61-62]

Bacon’s views have become more controversial in the last fifty years. Earlier interpretations assert that science would help us regain dominion over nature and gain control over natural phenomena. We would then be able to use nature for human ends. Our ideas about the relationship between man and nature have changed considerably in the last century. Many contemporary thinkers now believe that science must help us learn to live in harmony with nature rather than try to master and exploit it. Bacon’s pursuit of the exploitative and interventional role of science is now slowly being revised.


John Dee: The Royal Astrologer

John Dee

Paracelsus’ writings were widely available and almost certainly were owned by avid book collectors like John Dee, who was one of the major advisers and the personal astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, as well as the first English astronomer to accept the ideas of Copernicus. He played no little role in introducing ideas about the various aspects of the new natural philosophy into British aristocratic circles and making natural philosophy fashionable among young gentlemen. It was at this time that aristocrats who had been collectors of art and antiquities developed an interest in the collection of natural curiosities. It has been argued that when Dee organized a kind of scientific academy made up of friends and other gentlemen to discuss natural science he began a tendency that culminated in the formation of the Royal Society in 1660. He was also the Royal Astrologer and associated himself with Edward Kelley a devotee of the more arcane aspects of magic, which resulted in accusations of illicit conjuring and led to Dee’s eventual downfall. Magic was widely desired and also widely feared. The consequence of his secret forays into magic certainly assured that Francis Bacon would take great care in distinguishing natural magic from dangerous conjuring. As we shall see the streams of magic and science persisted together through the Scientific Revolution from the time publication of Copernicus’s account of planetary rotation. We will look closely at the persistence of these views through the 17th century

Renaissance Anatomy

Leonardo Da Vinci Skull da vinci Baby davinci

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo da Vinci was supposed to publish a book of anatomical drawings with the anatomist Marcantonio della Torre, but della Torre died of the Black plague in 1511. Leonardo continued this work secretly because dissection was against the church’s teaching at the time. He dissected more than 30 bodies and amassed more than 750 anatomical drawings. However it is not clear if the drawings were ever published in book form. The ones that remain display Leonardo’s conviction that however illegal, dissection was necessary to gain a full understanding of the human body.

Vesalius von Gebweiler Skeleton

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler,

Andreas Vesalius discovered that all of Galen’s anatomical studies were done on animals and not humans. As a result much of Galen’s understanding of the human body was skewed. Although his own dissections were not the first or even the most complete, the publication of Vesalius’ book De Humani corporis fabrica, (On the fabric of the human body,) which contained numerous anatomical illustrations, was very widely distributed in many different editions (some pirated). It set a new modern standard for anatomical depictions of the body, which were drawn by professional artists, not Vesalius himself. This was yet another step to amend the Galenic understanding of the human body.

In a rare instance for this period we still have the name of one of his human specimens. Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler was a notorious felon from Basel. After he was beheaded, Vesalius prepared and donated his skeleton to the University of Basel where it is displayed to this day.




ParacelsusParacelsus (1493-1541)

The Renaissance not only brought a new way of reading the Roman and Greek, classics, it also reintroduced hermetic writings about magic and a renewed interest in the Philosopher’s Stone. Paracelsus’ ideas about medicine and chemistry had vast influence in the Renaissance. He was violently opposed to the entire medical tradition of the mediaeval period. His full name is worth saying out loud: it is Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.  Paracelsus famously lost his job as municipal physician for burning Galenic books in the town square. He derided the academic doctors of his day for blindly following useless outmoded humoral practices based on Aristotle, Galen and Avicenna. For a long time Paracelsus’ influence on later thinking was neglected. However, it became clear in the 20th century that he exerted a major influence on the scientific practices of the 17th century. He was the father of iatrochemistry seeking medical solutions through chemical cures. Paracelsus considered the body to be something like a chemical retort in which food, liquids and air are processed into blood, muscle and various excreta. For him, a healthy person is someone in whom the necessary chemicals are present and the appropriate chemical reactions take place. Diseases are the result of either chemical imbalances or the introduction of poisons into the system. Once one had identified a particular disease, it would become possible to test and apply chemical treatments.

Paracelsus traveled across Europe introducing new chemical remedies. He is famously credited with introducing the use of mercury to reduce the side effects of syphilis – a remedy that was in use until the mid-20th century introduction of antibiotics.