Boerhaave, Hermann

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Boerhaave, Hermann (1668-1738): Dutch Scientist.

Hermann Boerhaave earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Leiden in 1690 with a thesis on the distinction between mind and body. After his graduation he continued to study theology. During this period he attended also the public dissections and studied independently the works of Hippocrates, Vesalius, Fallopio, Bartholin, and Sydenham. In 1693 he took a medical degree at the academy of Harderwijk. After rumors that he was a secret admirer of Spinoza, which would likely have impaired a future ecclesiastical career, Boerhaave definitively turned to medicine. In 1701 he was appointed lecturer in medicine at the University of Leiden, where he obtained the chair of botany and medicine (1709) and chemistry (1718). His appointment in botany put him in charge of the university’s botanical garden. Boerhaave quickly drew up a catalogue, Index plantarum (1710), and he acquired over 2000 new species for the garden during the next ten years. In 1714 he married Maria Drolenvaux , daughter of a rich merchant. Of their four children only one lived to adulthood. Boerhaave was elected a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences of Paris in 1728, and of the Royal Society of London in 1730.

Boerhaave’s lectures formed the basis for several textbooks, like Institutiones medicae (1708) and Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morbis (1709), which established his reputation in Europe. In 1714 he was charged with clinical teaching and revived bedside teaching, which had fallen into neglect. Boerhaave greatly influenced modern medical curriculum with its emphasis on natural science, anatomy, physiology, pathology, and clinical training. In his Atrocis, nec descripti prius, morbi historia (1724) Boerhaave established the prototype of a morbid history, consisting of physical examination, anamnesis, history of the disease, and autopsy findings.

With Stahl, Georg Ernst, Boerhaave belongs to the great systematists of the early eighteenth century. Deeply influenced by both Descartes and the great English scientists, Boerhaave tried to reconcile the heritage of ancient Greek medicine with the results of the new scientific method. Despite his predominantly mechanical view on the human body, Boerhaave made significant contributions in chemistry and he can be considered the father of physical chemistry and biochemistry, often including biochemical demonstrations in his courses.

Further Reading:

Lindeboom, Gerrit Arie. Herman Boerhaave: The Man and his Work London: Methuen, 1968.

Cornelis de Waal

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