Bruce T. Moran
University of Nevada

Making medicines from minerals and metals did not begin with Paracelsus (see Chemical Medicine, Theory). Those involved with making medicines by means of laboratory procedures involving intense heat sometimes separated theory from practice in adopting Paracelsus’s medicinal remedies. One of the earliest formularies for producing chemical medicines was the Basilica chymica (1609) of the German Paracelsian Oswald Croll (c. 1560–1609). The Basilica contained a mystical preface, but then turned to the practical business of describing the preparation of chemical remedies by various techniques. For a related English text, see Bazilica chymica, & Praxis chymiatricæ or Royal and practical chymistry in three treatises (1670).

In France, Jean Beguin published a laboratory manual, the Tyrocinium chymicum (Chymical Apprentice) (1610), which became one of the most frequently consulted chemical-pharmaceutical texts of the early seventeenth century. For a related English version, see Tyrocinium chymicum: or, Chymical essays, acquired from the fountain of nature, and manual experience (1669). For Beguin, chemical medicine defined the entire subject of chemistry, a position much criticized by one of the most prolific writers about chemistry in the era, the German school teacher Andreas Libavius (c. 1555–1616). Chemistry, Libavius thought, was more than just making medicines. In fact, he argued alchemists had been making medicines, and many other things, chemically for years. He described their procedures, materials, and instruments in one of his earliest, and most important, texts, a book simply called Alchemia (1597). Nevertheless, some traditional physicians denied that chemistry in any form had a place in medicine, and certainly had no place in university medical teaching. Making chemical medicines and practicing chemical therapeutics, however, found institutional support and protection within the society of European courts, and it was by making use of the authority of specific princes that chemical medicine, in the form of chemical pharmacy, ultimately found a place within university medical instruction.

The preparation of chemical medicines had become part of medical training already in the sixteenth century at a few universities, like Montpellier, that allowed practices related to a pharmaceutical tradition based in the materials and procedures of the ancient physician Dioscorides. For the most part, however, preparing chemical remedies remained a matter pursued outside academic walls. In France, well known Paracelsians like Joseph du Chesne (Quercetanus) (c. 1544–1609) and Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655) gained entry to the circle of physicians surrounding the French king, Henri IV. Yet they failed, even with the help of the anti-Paracelsian Libavius, to convince the Paris medical faculty to accept the legitimacy of chemistry in medicine. Teaching how to make chemical medicines thus developed apart from the university, and was introduced initially at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. A formal position, joining botany to teaching chemistry, appeared there in 1648. The man chosen to fill that position was Guillaume Davisson (William Davidson) (ca. 1593–c. 1669), a court physician who already had been teaching informal courses on chemical medicine. Laboratory instruction in chemical medicine continued at Paris outside the university with Nicaise Le Fèvre (ca.1615–1669) and Christofe Glaser, whose Traité de la Chymie (1663) became a popular text for practical procedures.

In Germany, Daniel Sennert (1572–1637) embraced aspects of chemical medicine within the medical curriculum at the University of Wittenberg. However, a more clearly defined effort to provide a regular place for chemical medicine within the university took place at the German university of Marburg in 1609. There, the interests in alchemy and Paracelsian medicine of the Hessian prince, Moritz of Hessen-Kassel (1572–1632) contributed to the creation of a public professorship in chemical medicine (referred to as chymiatria). For the position, Moritz chose Johannes Hartmann (1568–1631), who, for a short time, taught how to make various chemical preparations, drawing many recipes from the descriptions of Oswald Croll.

Bringing chemical medicine, as a laboratory practice, within academic walls continued thereafter at the University of Jena where Werner Rolfinck (1599–1673) acquired the specific title of “Director of Chemical exercises” in 1639. Chemical medicines soon gained official recognition within printed pharmacopeias in Germany. By 1640 the Augsburg Pharmacopeia (Pharmacopoea Augustana) included descriptions and recipes for chemical preparations, and their numbers increased in later editions. In England, the Pharmacopoeia of London described, already in 1618, the preparation of several chemical remedies under the heading “chemical preparations more frequent in use.”

The production of chemical medicines combined the talents of both scholars and artisans, and making them quickly became a means for medical empirics (practitioners relying upon personal experience rather than university training) to advance their own professional status. As chemical medicine crossed between cultures of lay and learned, parts of its literature entered vernacular discussions. In Germany, a distiller at the court of Saxony and Brandenburg, Johann Popp, published in 1617 a work called Chymische Medicin (Chymical medicine), which was commented upon and expanded by others thereafter. One to do so was a physician at Leipzig, Johann Agricola. The need for chemical remedies, Agricola argued, was greater in his own day, since illnesses had become more severe since the time of the ancients, and the preparation of such medicines could only be learned in the schools of the chemical arts by those who were unafraid to get theirs hands dirty. University physicians were not up to the task since they seldom allowed their tender hands and fingers “stacked with rings” to touch the coals and ashes that were so much a part of the laboratory preparations necessary in making medicines chemically.

In England, empirics practising chemical pharmacy made much the same claim about university physicians. One of the most vocal was George Thomson, who lambasted the members of London’s Royal College of Physicians in works like Galeno-pale: or, A chymical trial of the Galenists, that their dross in physick may be discovered (1665). The desire among self-identified ‘true’ chemists like Thomson to distance themselves from the ‘quacks’ led to the founding of a Society of Chemical Physicians in 1665. The Society, however, did not last long, and by 1671 the Society of Apothecaries (founded 1617) had established its own laboratory, presenting its own chemical medicines to the College of Physicians for approval.

Vernacular texts brought together theoretical and practical discussions and also brought those discussions to a large, non-university-trained medical audience. Some worried that such books added to the number of empirics and interfered with the work of learned physicians. Others expressed a more welcoming view. The English printer Peter Cole, for instance, argued at the beginning of a book called The Practice of Physick (1655) (chiefly a translation of texts by the French physician Lazare Rivière, 1589–1655), that vernacular translations and books for making medicines taught empirics “how to go upon good grounds, and to be able to give a solid reason for what they do, and… make them Rational Physicians.” In terms of chemical medicine, the rationality for what one did might be Paracelsian/vitalist, corpuscular/mechanical, and even still tied to ancient, Galenic/Hippocratic, traditions. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, chemical medicine, by being open to lay as well as learned, by embracing pharmacy as well as philosophy and physiology, and by finding its way within courts, universities and medical societies, secured for its practitioners a significant cultural place in the history of early modern medicine.

Note: in this period, few if any translations were what we would consider literal translations. English-language texts hyperlinked in this essay serve as related texts that might serve as English examples, rather than indicating actual translations.