From A Gallery of Eccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 43-52.
JAN BAPTISTA VAN HELMONT
ONE has but to look in one’s textbook in Elementary Chemistry to find a tribute to Jan Baptista van Helmont. To him we render honor as to the founder of pneumatic chemistry, for he first established the principle that our atmosphere may be invaded by windy spirits distinct in kind from air. These spirits he christened with the barbaric name of Gas. In the field of physiology likewise his investigations revealed for the first time the mysteries of the chemistry of digestion. In alchemy as well his discovery of the philosopher’s stone, which converted 2000 times its weight of mercury into gold, bade fair to revolutionize the metallurgy and economics of his time. A survey of his life and thought will expose to us the method of the great Scientist, and will display the working of that inward Archeus which alone can guide the investigator through his experiments to Truth.
He was born in Brussels in 1577, of a gentle family. Entering the University of Louvain at the age of seventeen, he turned first to the study of surgery, against his family’s desire, for Surgeon was still, in popular consideration, hyphenated with Barber. He soon abandoned such mean studies, and transferred to philosophy. The speculations of philosophy seemed to him nugatory and unfruitful, although he drew some profit from Martin del Rio’s disquisitions on magic. “Comperi, me litera inflatum,” he cries; “I learned that I was 44 blown up with letters, and, as though I had eaten that Forbidden Apple, I was openly naked, beyond that I had learned to dispute in artificial manner.”1 He deserted philosophy, and vowed himself for a space to mathematics. Discovering the insufficiency of that study, he turned to astronomy, and that also he found to be vanity. Having completed his course, he refused to take his degree of Magister Artium, for, says he, his Professors would fain befool him, making him a master of the seven Arts, when he was not yet truly a pupil of any one.
In this parlous pass he found no recourse but prayer. Having prayed, he lay down to dream, for in dreams were the problems of his life, as the problems of chemistry, revealed. He dreamed that he had become a great bubble of water, whose diameter subtended the space between earth and heaven; beneath him yawned an abyss; above him hovered a coffin. From this vision he concluded that one might not utter the name of Jesus without the special grace of God, and that only in a stoic life of prayer and fasting might he find salvation. He concluded further that he should make systematic botany the subject of his special study. We find him soon, however, deeply engaged in the study of the law. Abandoning law, he returned to his first predilection, medicine. With such energy did he follow his bent that, according to some authors, he received his Doctorate at the age of twenty-two.
He was already an iconoclast and an anti-scholastic. Recognizing the poverty of man’s reason, he came to know that his understanding would profit more by celestial imagination than by logic-chopping. Therefore, 45 to resolve a medical problem, his method was to form a picture or phantasy of it in his mind. He would then eat heavily, to aid his hypnagogy, and would dream through to a solution, for nox nocti indicat scientiam. And if, as often, the dream was troubled and inscrutable, through prayer he would come to its fit interpretation.
Having thus discovered truth’s own road to truth, he abandoned gladly all his books and instruments, dividing his inheritance among his sisters, and set off to examine the world. Ten years he spent in wanderings, of which we have no knowledge save that, according to his own recollection, he was highly honored by Queen Elizabeth of England, and was by her bidden to a court festival which lasted from three in the afternoon until three o’clock of the following morning. It was during this Odyssey that he returned to his practice of medicine, once so contemned. Moved by the plight of sufferers from the Pest, he went to offer his services to the afflicted. As soon as they looked upon him, new life was restored to them. From this he concluded that God wished to convey His grace upon him, making him an adept of celestial wisdom, especially chemistry. He flung away all the books of writers upon this branch of philosophy, and through experiment and vision he came in two years to a profound knowledge of the subject.
Of his chemical proficiency this recorder confesses his incompetence to judge. He turns to the Lectures on the History of Physiology, by Sir M. Foster, K.C.B., M.P., D.C.L., Sec.R.S.,2 who speaks of him as “a patient, careful, exact observer, a child of the new 46 philosophy, one who has entered fully into the spirit of the new physics, who watches, measures and weighs, who takes advantage of the aid of instruments of exact research, who reaches a conclusion by means of accurate quantitative estimations.” Sir M. Foster quotes as an example of his quantitative method his experiment to prove that all vegetables are produced immediately and materially out of the single element of water. In an earthen vessel he placed 200 pounds of earth dried in an oven; therein he placed a willow weighing 16 pounds. After five years the willow weighed 169 pounds, and the earth (after again being dried) 200 pounds less two ounces. As the earthen vessel had been closed with an iron lid coated with tin, and as only rain or distilled water had penetrated to its interior, the additional weight of the tree was derived from water alone. This conclusion, irrefutable as it may appear, is, I believe, contested by modern chemists for reasons of their own.
Chiefly, however, his fame is to be preserved for his discovery of Gas and Blas, “two new terms introduced by me because a knowledge of them was hidden from the ancients.” By Gas he meant what is today termed carbonic acid gas, or carbon dioxide. It is essentially a form of water. “The gas of salts is water. That the gas of fruits is nothing but water follows from what I have already shewn, namely, that these arise from water. A dried grape, submitted to distillation, is thereby reduced by art to elemental water, whereas a grape fresh but uninjured gives rise to must and gas. Since therefore the whole grape in the absence of ferment is turned into water, but gives rise to gas whenever a ferment is applied, it follows of necessity that 47 the gas is itself water.” Indeed, there are but two elements, air and water, and the gas of water is wholly different from air. “That all vegetables and flesh consist of water alone I can prove by experiment. Everything indeed, if not directly, at least with the help of an adjunct, can be made to assume again the nature of water. All stones, rocks and mud, either of themselves, or with assistance, change into alkaline salt; and all sal alkali, fat being added, is reduced to a watery liquor which at length becomes plain and simple water.”3
Blas is more difficult to determine experimentally. It is “an invisible spiritual or at least immaterial agency or energy which directs and governs material processes and changes.” There is many a Blas: the blas meteoron rules the heavens, and blas humanum the body of man. Man’s blas is double, one involuntary, one voluntary; and man’s sickness is due to the disorders of the blas, when it is inharmonious to the blas of the stars and planets. The blas humanum, with minor blases, its lieutenants, directs our digestions and all or inward chemistry. And in the study of the kitchens of our bodies, says Sir M. Foster, “van Helmont leaps ahead, and anticipates conclusions which were not reached until many a long year after him.”
Not all of his conclusions have been supported by more recent judgments. For instance, he averred that the sensitive soul resides in the pylorus, the mouth of the stomach. “He gives various reasons for this conclusion; among others the fact that a great emotion is always felt at the pit of the stomach, and that a man may have his head blown off by a cannon-ball and yet 48 his heart will go on beating for some time, whereas a severe blow at the pit of the stomach will stop his heart and take away his consciousness at the same time.”
He combined his researches into chemistry and physiology with the practice of medicine, which he had once foregone as a diabolical deceit of the heathen Greeks. In the year 1617 he was divinely directed to undertake the reformation of this art. He prayed that God might take from him again the unwelcome talent so lodged in his keeping; but he was assured in a dream that his scruples were but secret pride and false humility. As he still hung reluctant, God was angered with him, and permitted Satan to sift him.”4 Zenith and Nadir and other luminaries of heaven were loaned to the devil, and with them was this faintheart tortured. “Ordo, cujus Zenith est domus Potestatum, & Nadir, caeteri ordines, me cepit gratis persequi, indignis technis.” He submitted, and set to work upon his Ortus Medicinae, the Fountain-spring of Medicine.
Nor in the exercise of his craft upon the sick and afflicted was he idle. He tells us of some of his therapeutical triumphs, to which, despite the author’s continuing fame, it is difficult to attach credence. He obtained from an Irishman named Butler a Universal Medicine, consisting of a stone which, when placed in olive oil, assumed such virtue that it would cure any disease by mere contact. It was the original substance of earth, the philosopher’s stone. By its means he attained the end so long sought by all alchemists. The name of the stone was Drif.
Drif, for some reason, no doubt a dark one, was unable to cure the pest. Van Helmont learned from 49 Butler a specific with which to make good Drif’s sole defect. One must capture a frog of an afternoon in June, hang it by the feet above the fireplace, and set a key of yellow wax beneath it. After the three days the frog would cast up a bit of earth and a number of flies with greenish-gold wings; it would then die. This experiment having been performed, van Helmont pulverized the frog with its rejections, and formed the whole into pills of tragacanth; therewith he cured miraculously innumerable sufferers. His success was, indeed, so notable that, he asserts, numerous attempts to poison him were made by his fellow general practitioners of Vilvorde.
With the wide curiosity so characteristic of scientists of his time, he did not disdain to venture into other fields than his own. His observations on physical phenomena contain much that will astonish spectators of the docile Nature of our day. He himself witnessed several times a black box the size of a riding-boot leaping about in the oak groves with great crashings, and casting out a flame as of burning straw. Shortly after a heavy local shower would ensue. From this and other experiences he concluded that thunder is not a natural, but a supernatural phenomenon, of diabolical causation. He reports, though not de visu, another striking example of the devil’s work. In 1554 in Cüringen near Liége a stroke of lightning carried away the church steeple, leaving no trace behind. Fourteen days later the grave-digger, performing his functions, struck his spade against the weather-cock. A band of diggers was assembled, the entire steeple disinterred, and the devil foiled. Again he tells us of the coat of St. Hubert, from which a snippet had been cut every year for 50 eight hundred years, and yet the blessed garment was undiminished.
He died on December 30, 1644, from a stitch in the side (how else may one render Seitenstechen?). His wife and four of his five children had anticipated him to death, notwithstanding all his medicaments. His surviving son, Franz Mercurius van Helmont, author of the Cabbalah denudata, made a name for himself in the two fields of alchemy and mystical theosophy. It appears that our scientist died in poverty, in the manner of scientists, despite his successes in alchemy, his popularity as a physician, and his possession of Drif.
It would, no doubt, be rash to make generalizations about the method of the scientist from the somewhat special experience of Jan Baptista van Helmont. His achievements stand on record; some of them, after three hundred years, are still considered to be right. Some of them are nearly right. And in those days it was none too easy for the scientist to be right, in the eyes of our experimentalists, who are happy if their rightness be not demolished within a lustrum. If aught may be learned from the methods of great investigators, it would seem not temerarious to suggest to our scientists that they supplement their laboratory technique by picturing their problems inwardly, eating an unusually heavy dinner, and retiring to their couches, there to dream through to a solution and — who knows? — to Truth.
1 Theophilus Spizelius: Infelix literatus, 844.
2 Cambridge, 1901.
3 Translation by Sir M. Foster. Op. cit., 133.
4 Permisit cribrari a Sathana.
SIR THOMAS URQUHART