Van Swieten, Gerard

, one of the most celebrated physicians of the last century, and who attained the highest honours in his profession, was born at Leyden, May 7, 1700, of a very ancient family, which had furnished many distinguished characters for the state, the bar, and the array. He had the misfortune to lose his parents at a time when their affection would have been of most importance to him, and fell into the hands of tutors who took very little care of his property, and less of his education. This last, however, became early his own concern, and a thirst for knowledge led him to form a successful plan. After studying the classics at Leyden, he went in 1716 to Louvain, where, after a course of philosophy for two years, he was admitted into the first class, and his masters would have been glad to have detained him that he might become a farther ornament to their university; but he had by this time fixed his choice on medicine as a profession, and therefore returned to Leyden, where he placed himself under the illustrious Boerhaave. Van Swieten was not more happy in such a master than Boerhaave was in directing the studies of a pupil who soon promised to extend his favourite science. After seven years’ study here, Van Swieten, in 1725, received his doctor’s degree, and Boerhaave, notwithstanding the disparity of years and of fame, chose him for his friend, and discerned in him his future successor.

Van Swieten’s course of study was such as laid a solid foundation for his future fame. He began by tracing the fundamental principles of the healing art to their origin in the writings of the most eminent authors of antiquity, and examined with historical precision the progress of improvement through every age, distinguishing what was conjectural and temporary from what was founded on the basis of experience, and permanent; and during this extensive course of reading, he was content to abstract himself from rtie pleasures of society, and even abridged himself of the necessary hours of sleep and refreshment, until his faithful preceptor admonished him against an excess which would | injure his health, and disappoint him of the object he wished to attain. Such, however, was the progress he made, that "at the age of twenty-five he was justly classed among the Savans of Europe.

After he had taken his doctor’s degree he continued to attend Boerhaave’s lectures for about twenty years, and having within this period been himself appointed a professor, his fame and talents brought a vast addition to the number of medical students at Leyden, who came from Germany, France, and England, to what was then the greatest and perhaps the only school of medicine in Europe. Celebrated as the school of Leyden was, however, from the joint labours of Boerhaave and Van Swieten, it was at last disgraced in the person of the latter. His growing reputation excited the envy of some of his contemporaries, who having nothing else to object, took the mean advantage of his being a Roman catholic, and insisting that the law should be put in force, obliged him to resign an office which he had filled with so much credit to the university. Van Swieten submitted to this treatment with dignified contempt, and being now more at leisure, began his great work, his Commentaries on Boerhaave’sAphorisms, the first volume of which was finished, and the second nearly so, when the empress Maria Theresa invited him to her court; and although he felt some reluctance at quitting the studious life he had hitherto led, he could not with propriety reject the offer, and accordingly arrived at Vienna in June 1745. Here he was appointed first physician to the court, with a handsome establishment, and some time after the dignity of baron was conferred upon him. How well he merited these honours, the favourable change effected by him in the state of medical science sufficiently proved. He was now in the prime of life, and perhaps few men in Europe were better qualified, by extent of knowledge, to lay the foundation for a school of medicine. He was not only thoroughly versed in every branch of medicine, in botany, anatomy, surgery, chemistry, &c. but was well acquainted with most of the European languages. He was a good Greek and Latin scholar, and wrote the latter with ease and elegance, and in his lectures was frequently happy in his quotations from the Greek and Latin classics. He was also well versed in all the branches of mathematics, and natural philosophy; and had paid no little attention to divinity, law, politics, and history. Such | attainments procured him the confidence of his sovereign, whom he easily prevailed upon to rebuild the university of Vienna in an elegant style, and with every accommodation for the pursuit of the different sciences. The botanical garden was enlarged, and the keeping of it given to M. Langier; and a clinical lecture was established in one of the principal hospitals by M. De Haen. It was in 1746 that Van Swieten first began to execute his plan for reforming the study of medicine in the university of Vienna, by giving lectures in the vestibule of the imperial library; and when his business as first physician increased, he called in the aid of able professors who understood his views; among whom were the celebrated Storck and Crantz. Having been appointed keeper of the imperial library, his first measure was to abolish a barbarous law that had long been in force, which prohibited any person from making notes or extracts from any of the books. Van Swieten, on the contrary, laid the whole open to the use of readers, and provided them with every accommodation, and ample permission to transcribe what they pleased. He also prevailed on the empress to increase the salaries of the professors of the university, and to provide for the education of young men of talents. He was himself a most liberal patron to such as stood in need of this aid, and employed his whole influence in their favour; and he lived to promote the interests of learning in general throughout the Austrian dominions to an extent hitherto unknown.

Amidst all his engagements he enjoyed good health until 1769, when he perceived symptoms of decay: it was not, however, until 1772 that his constitution visibly declined, and a mortification in one of his toes coming on proved fatal June 18th of that year, in the seventy -third year of his age. Such was the respect of his royalmistress, that she visited him several times during his illness, and saw him only a few hours before his death, when she shed tears at the near prospect of that event. He died at Schonbrun, and his corpse was brought to Vienna, and interred in the chapel of the Augustines, and a statue was placed in the university to his memory. Few persons indeed have received more honours. At the time of his death he bore the titles ofcommander of the royal order of St. Stephen, counsellor, first physician, royal librarian, president of the censors of books; vice-president of the Imperial and royal commission of studies; perpetual director of the faculty of | medicine; and a member of all the principal literary societies of Europe, and, among these, of our Royal Society, into which he was chosen in 1749. He married in 1729, and had two sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Geoffrey Baron Van Swieten, died in March 1803 he was commander of the order of St. Stephen, and director of the Imperial library, and was, some years since, the Imperial envoy at the court of Berlin. He bequeathed his library (including a very considerable musical collection) to the university of Vienna.

The work, which amidst all the changes of medical theory, must ever preserve the memory of Van Swieten, was his “Commentaria in H. Boerhaave Aphorismos,1743, &c. 5 vol. 4to. This has been often reprinted, and translated into French, German, and English. He wrote also “Description abregee des maladies qui regnent communement dans les arme’es,Vienna, 1759, 8vo. 1


Eloy, —Dict. Hist. de Medecine. Bruckers Pinacotheca Viror. Illust. Decas X.