1902 Encyclopedia > Chemistry > History of Chemistry: The Spagyrists. Paracelsus. Agricola. J B Van Helmont.

(Part 3)

HISTORY OF CHEMISTRY: The Spagyrists. Paracelsus (1493-1541). Agricola (1494-1555). J B Van Helmont (1577-1644)

It was in the 16th century that a new race of alchemists or spagyrists, as they were termed, arose, who, abandoning the search for the philosopher’s stone, began to direct their energies to the discovery of chemical remedies for the various diseases of the body. "the true use of chemistry," says Paracelsus (1493-1541) "is not to make gold, but to prepare medicines." Rejecting the teaching of Galen, he admitted three or four elements, the star, the root, the elements, and the sperm or true seed, which were originally confounded together in the chaos or yliados; these element he asserted were composed of the three principles soderic salt and sulphur and mercury, the cause respectively of the qualities of fixity, combustibility, and fluidity and volatility. The theories of Paracelsus found many advocates, amongst whom may be mentioned Thurneysser (1531-1596), Bodenstein, Taxites, Dorn, Sennert, and Duchesne; and with some modifications they were maintained in the 17th century by Dr Willis (1621-1675), the celebrated English anatomist and iatro-chemist, and by Lefebvre and Lémery in France, according to whose system matter consisted of the active principles mercury or spirit, sulphur or oil, and salt, and the passive principles water or phlegm and earth.

Among the contemporaries but not the followers of Paracelsus, the German metallurgist Agricola (1494-1555) deserves mention; his great work, De Re Metallica, is the most valuable contribution to practical chemistry that appeared in the 16th century. Libavius also, who died in 1616, did much to forward chemical science at this period. From his writings, however, in which he puts forward the views both of Paracelsus and of Aristotle concerning the constitution of bodies, it does not appear that his notions of chemical combination were more definite than those of his predecessors.

J. B. Van Helmont (1577-1644), who, like Paracelsus, repudiated the doctrines of the Galenists, held opinions that in many respects were no advance upon those of the former. He looked upon water as the true principle of all existing things, inclusive of the three principles salt, sulphur, and mercury, which therefore were not elements; to air, however, he granted the rank of a true element. The archoeus –something without form, and independent of the elements – he imagined to draw all bodies from water, to which its generating spirit was attracted by the odour of a ferment or aura vitalis. The vapour produced by the fermentation of water was, according to Van Helmont, a gas, and the same term was by him for the first time applied to carbon dioxide, which he termed gas sylvestre, and other bodies resembling air.

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