Indiana University Bloomington

Anatomia Animata: Anatomy and Medicine in William Harvey's Century


Chemistry and medicine shared a rather productive relationship, particularly in the seventeenth century. During this period, chemistry was in the process of rejecting its alchemical roots, and thus it is often referred to as "chymistry," a transitional discipline between alchemy and modern chemistry. In combination with the mechanical or atomistic understanding of nature, the stage was set for chymistry to yield many discoveries important for medicine, physiology, and physics.

John Mayow. Tractatus Quinque Medico–Physici ... Oxford: E Theatro Sheldoniano, 1674.

Mayow's Tractus Quinque is one of the most important works on combustion and respiration in the history of science. In this volume, an expansion of a text published in 1674, Mayow suggested that it is only a fraction of the air that allows respiration. Mayow believed that this compound that both supported combustion and allowed life was a nitro–aerial spirit. He further thought that this nitrous spirit reacted with the sulphureous parts of the blood, and this reaction caused a fermentation in the pulmonary vessels, the heart, and the arteries. Moreover, the movement of the heart was itself dependent on the presence of this "nitre," which caused a small explosion within its fibres.

Michael Ettmüller. Opera Pharmaceutico–Chymica ... Lyons: [s.n.], 1686.

This recent acquisition of The Lilly Library, in addition to its importance to the history of chymistry and medicine, has a very attractive embossed binding. Michael Ettmüller studied medicine as well as philosophy and mathematics in Lutheran Wittenberg, graduating in 1662. He continued his studies in chymistry and after several years traveled all throughout western Europe. He wrote on a diverse array of subjects, but his work is perhaps most important for illustrating the beneficial relationship between chymistry and medicine.

Robert Boyle. Medicinal Experiments; or, A Collection of Choice Remedies, for the Most Part Simple, and Easily Prepared. London: Printed for Samuel Smith, 1692.

The influence of chymistry upon medicine is evident in the genre of medical recipes. Physicians competent in chymistry published long lists of recipes for others – presumably physicians or chymists themselves – to benefit from. Even Robert Boyle, one of the most distinguished scientists of his time, took part in this practice. As the reader can see in the displayed text, some of the recipes Boyle describes would be difficult to replicate without a thorough understanding of chymistry.

Robert Boyle. Memoirs for the Natural History of Humane Blood, Especially the Spirit of That Liquor. London: Printed for Samuel Smith, 1684.

"The most important of Boyle's medical writings ... it may be said to mark the beginning of physiological chemistry," according to Boyle's biographer John Fulton.

Boyle had a sustained interest in blood all throughout his career and collaborated on many experiments with the likes of Richard Lower and Robert Hooke. Indeed, Boyle's and Lower's experimental injections began the entire field of blood transfusion. Boyle had also performed (or planned on performing) experiments on the color of the blood and the volume of blood in animals.

Thomas Willis. Diatribae Duae Medico–Philosophicae ... London: Typis T. Roycroft, Impensis J. Martin, J. Allestry & T. Ditas, 1662.

The frontispiece of this text shows Art standing in front of a distillation apparatus with a magnifying glass in hand giving light to Nature. Willis was confident in his early years that chymistry could provide answers to some of the most pressing questions of the day. His Diatribae Duae contained three separate books: De Fermentatione (On Fermentation), De Febribus (On Fevers), and De Urinis (On Urines). The first text laid the theoretical, chymical foundation upon which Willis would base his medical theories.

Willis believed that all bodies are composed of five kinds of particles; in order of decreasing activity, these are spirit, sulfur, salt, water, and earth. When these particles are mixed, fermentations arise, which Willis defined as an internal motion of a body's chymical particles that eventually lead to the perfection of that body. Willis used fermentation to describe such various phenomena as the circulation and color–change of the blood, all different types of fevers, diabetes, digestion, and even secondary sexual characteristics.

Lilly Library Home     Exhibition Home     Online Exhibitions
Last Updated: 1 August 2009
© 2009 The Trustees of Indiana University