Helmont, John Baptist Van

, commonly called Van Helmont, from a borough and castle of that name in Brabant, was a person of quality, and a man of great learning, especially in physic and natural philosophy; and born at Brussels in 1577. The particulars of his life, as given in the two introductory chapters to his works, give a just notion of the man.

In the year 1580,” says he, " a most miserable one to the Low Countries, my father died. I, the youngest and least esteemed of all my brothers and sisters, was bred a scholar; and in the year 1594, which was to me the 17th, had finished the course of philosophy. Upon seeing none admitted to examinations at Louvain, but in a gown, and masked with a hood, as though the garment did promise learning, I began to perceive, that the taking degrees in arts was a piece of mere mockery; and wondered at the simplicity of young men, in fancying that they had learned any thing from their doting professors. I entered, therefore, into a serious and honest examination of myself, that I might know by my own judgment, how much I was a philosopher, and whether I had really acquired truth and knowledge: but found myself altogether destitute, save that I had learned to wrangle artificially. Then came I first to perceive, that I knew nothing, or at least that which was not worth knowing. Natural philosophy seemed to promise something of knowledge, to which therefore I joined the study of astronomy. I applied myself also to | logic and the mathematics, by way of recreation, when I was wearied with other studies; and made myself a master of Euclid’s Elements, as I did also of Copernicus’s theory ‘ De revolutionibus orbium ccelestium:’ but all these things were of no account with me, because they contained Jittle truth and certainty, little but a parade of science falsely so called. Finding after all, therefore, that nothing was sound, nothing true, I refused the title of master of arts, though I had finished my course; unwilling, that professors should play the fool with me, in declaring me a master of the seven arts, when I was conscious to myself that I knew nothing.

"A wealthy canonry was promised me then, so that I might, if I pleased, turn myself to divinity but saint Bernard affrighted me from it, saying, that I should eat the sins of the people. 7 I begged therefore of the Lord Jesus, that he would vouchsafe to call me to that profession in which 1 might please him most. The Jesuits began at that time to teach philosophy at Louvain, and one of the professors expounded the disquisitions and secrets of magic. Both these lectures I greedily received; but instead of grain, I reaped only stubble, and fantastic conceits void of sense. In the mean time, lest an hour should pass without some benefit, I run through some writings of the stoics, those of Seneca, and especially of Epictetus, who pleased me exceedingly. I seemed, in moral philosophy, to have found the quintessence of truth, and did verily believe, that through stoicism I advanced in Christian perfection; but 1 discovered afterwards in a dream, that stoicism was an empty and swollen bubble, and that by this study, under the appearance of moderation, I became, indeed, most self-sufficient and haughty. Lastly, 1 turned over Mathiolus and Dioscorides; thinking with myself nothjng equally necessary for mortal man to know and admire, as the wisdom and goodness of God in vegetables; to the end that he might not only crop the fruit for food, but also minister of the same to his other necessities. My curiosity being now raised upon this branch of study, I inquired, whether there were any book, which delivered the maxims and rule of medicine for I then supposed, that medicine was not altogether a mere gift, but might ]be taught, and delivered by discipline, like other arts and sciences: at least I thought, if medicine was a good gift coming down from the Father of lights, that it might have, | as an human science, its theorems and authors, into whom, as into Bazaleel and Aholiab, the spirit of the Lord had infused the knowledge of all diseases and their causes, and also the knowledge of the properties of things. I inquired, I say, whether no writer had described the qualities, properties, applications, and proportions of vegetables, from the hyssop even to the cedar of Libanus? A certain professor of medicine answered me, that none of these things were to be looked for either in Galen or Avicen. I was very ready to believe this, from the many fruitless searches I hau made in books for truth and knowledge before; however, following my natural bent, which lay to the study of nature, I read the institutions of Fuchsius and Fernelius; in whom I knew I had surveyed the whole science of medicine, as it were in an epitome. Is this, said I, smiling to myself, the knowledge of healing Is the whole history of natural properties thus shut up in elementary qualities Therefore I read the works of Galen twice of Hippocrates once, whose aphorisms I almost got by heart; all Avicen, as well as the Greeks, Arabians, and moderns, to the tune of 600 authors. I read them seriously and attentively through; and took down, as I went along, whatever seemed curious and worthy of attention; when at length, reading over my common-place book, I was grieved at the pains I had bestowed, and the years I had spent, in throwing together such a mass of stufc Therefore I straightway left off all books whatever, all formal discourses, and empty promises of the schools; firmly believing every good and perfect gift to come down from the Father of lights, more particularly that of medicine.

I have attentively surveyed some foreign nations; but I found the same sluggishness, in implicitly following” the steps of their forefathers, and ignorance among them all. I then became persuaded, that the art of healing was a mere imposture, originally set on foot by the Greeks for filthy lucre’s sake; till afterwards the Holy Scriptures informed me better. I considered, that the plague, which then raged at Louvain, was a most miserable disease, in which every one forsook the sick; and faithless helpers, distrustful of their own art, fled more swiftly than the unlearned common people, and homely pretenders to cure it. I proposed to myself to dedicate one salutation to the miserable infected; and although then no medicine was made | known to me but trivial ones, yet God preserved my innocency from so cruel an enemy. I was not indeed sent for, but went of my own accord; and that not so much to help them, which I despaired of doing, as for the sake of learning. All that saw me, seemed to be refreshed with hope and joy; and I myself, being fraught with hope, was persuaded, that, by the mere free gift of God, 1 should sometimes obtain a mastery in the science. After ten years’ travel and studies from my degree in the art of medicine taken at Louvain, being then married, I withdrew myself, in 1609, to Vilvord, that, being the less troubled by applications, I might proceed diligently in viewing the kingdoms of vegetables, animals, and minerals. I employed myself some years in chemical operations. I searched into the works of Paracelsus; and at first admired and honoured the man, but at last was convinced, that nothing but difficulty, obscurity, and error, was to be found in him. Thus tired out with search after search, and concluding the art of medicine to be all deceit and uncertainty, I said with a sorrowful heart, ‘ Good God how long wilt thou be angry with mortal man, who hitherto has not disclosed one truth, in healing, to thy schools How long wilt thou deny truth to a people confessing thee, needful in these days, more than in times past Is the sacrifice of Molech pleasing to thee wilt thou have the lives of the poor, widows, and fatherless children, consecrated to thyself; under the most miserable torture of incurable diseases How is it, therefore, that thou ceasest not to destroy so many families through the uncertainty and ignorance of physicians’ Then I fell on my face, and said, ’ Oh, Lord, pardon me, if favour towards my neighbour hath snatched me away beyond my bounds. Pardon, pardon, O Lord, my indiscreet charity for thou art the radical good of goodness itself. Thou hast known my sighs and that I confess myself to be, to know, to be worth, to be able to do, to have, nothing and that I am poor, naked, empty, vain. Give, O Lord, give knowledge to thy creature, that he may affectionately know thy creatures; himself first, other things besides himself, all things, and more than all things, to be ultimately in thee.' “After I had thus earnestly prayed, I fell into a dream; in which, in the sight or view of truth, I saw the whole universe, as it were, some chaos or confused thing without form, which was almost a mere nothing. And from thence I drew the conceiving of one word, which did signify to | me this following: ‘ Behold thou, and what things thou seest, are nothing. Whatever thou dost urge, is less than nothing itself in the sight of the Most High. He knoweth all the bounds of things to be done; thou at least may apply thyself to thy own safety.’ In this conception there was an inward precept, that I should be made a physician; and that, some time or other, Raphael himself should be given unto me. Forthwith therefore, and for thirty whole years after, and their nights following in order, 1 laboured always to my cost, and often in danger of my life, that I might obtain the knowledge of vegetables and minerals, and of their natures and properties also. Meanwhile, I exercised myself in prayer, in reading, in a narrow search of things, in sifting my errors, and in writing down what I daily experienced. At length I knew with Solomon, that t had for the most part hitherto perplexed my spirit in vain; and I said, Vain is the knowledge of all things under the sun, vain are the searchings of the curious. Whom the Lord Jesus shall call unto wisdom, he, and no other, shall come; yea, he that hath come to the top, shall as yet be able to do very little, unless the bountiful favour of the Lord shall shine upon him. Lo, thus have I waxed ripe of age, being become a man; and now also an old man, unprofitable, and unacceptable to God, to whom be all honour.

From this curious account, given in the preceding editions of this Dictionary, and which we are unwilling to displace, it will be seen that Van Helmont had a strong portion of enthusiasm; but he was not the madman which some of his contemporaries imagined. For a period of thirty years he pursued his researches into the products of nature, with such perseverance, as to leave few of the known animal, vegetable, and mineral bodies unexamined. In the course of these investigations, he necessarily fell upon the discovery of several of the products of decomposition, and of new combination, which chemistry affords: among these he seems to have been the first to notice the spirit of hartshorn, the spirit of sulphur per campanam, as it was called, and the aerial part of the spa-waters, which he first denominated gas (from the German geist, ghost, or spirit), and several other substances. Among these were many articles possessing considerable influence upon the living body, which, being contrasted with the inertness of the simples of the Galenical practice, roused and confirmed | his former opinions against the doctrines of that school; which he now attacked with great ardour and strength of argument, and which he contributed to overthrow. But partly in imitation of Paracelsus, whom he greatly admired, and partly from an attempt to generalize the confused mass of new facts, which he had acquired, he attempted to reduce the whole system of medicine to the principles of chemistry, and substituted a jargon as unintelligible, and hypotheses as gratuitous, as those which he had attempted to refute. He published from time to time a variety of works, by which he obtained considerable reputation. The elector of Cologne, who was himself attached to chemical inquiries, held him in great esteem; and he received from the emperor Rodolph II. and uis two successors, invitations to the court of Vienna; but he preferred his laboratory and cabinet to these proffered honours. He died on the 30th of December, 1644, in the sixty-eighth year of his age.

His first work was entitled <( De Magnetica Vulnerum Naturali et Legitima Curatione, contra Johannem Roberti Soc. Jesu Theologum,“Paris, 1621, 8vo. His next publication was relative to the waters of the Spa,” De Spadanis Fontibus,“Liege, 1624, 8vo. Next followed, after a long interval,” Febrium Doctrina inaudita,“Antwerp, 1642, 12mo and” Opuscula Medica inaudita, l.De Lithiasi; 2. De Febribus; a. De Humoribus Galeni 4. De Peste,“Cologne, 1644, 8vo. On his death he requested his son to collect his papers, as well the incomplete as the finished ones, and to publish them in the way which he thought the best. They were sent to the printer, without correction, and without any regard to connection or arrangement, and published at Amsterdam in 1648, in 4to, under the title of” Ortus Medicinae, id est, initia PhysiciB inaudita, progressus Medicinal Novus in Morborum ultionem ad Vitam longam.“Under the title ofOpera omnia," these works have been reprinted at various times and places, and in various languages the most correct edition is that of Amsterdam, in 1652, by Elzevir. They are now consulted only as curiosities; but he certainly anticipated, in obscure glimpses, as it were, several of the important discoveries, as well as the hypotheses of later times his Arch&us is now the vis medico,­trix nature of Hoffmann and Cullen; his doctrine of | ferments was adopted by Silvius and his followers; and he greatly cleared the way to chemical discoveries. 1


Life as above. Rees’s Cyclopseilia.