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.