Hermann Boerhaave

The Dutch physician and chemist Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) was the leading medical teacher of the early 18th century. His works on medicine and chemistry had widespread use as basic textbooks.

Hermann Boerhaave was born on Dec. 31, 1668, at Voorhout, Holland, the son of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. A painful leg ulcer which affected him for 5 years during his youth excited his interest in medicine. He aimed first to combine a career as a pastor and physician. After entering the University of Leiden in 1684, he took courses in mathematics, natural philosophy, botany, and languages, as well as in theology.

In 1690 Boerhaave obtained the degree of doctor of philosophy and began medical studies. As a physician, he was almost entirely self-taught, medical instruction at Leiden being at a low ebb. He obtained his medical degree in 1693 from the University of Harderwijk.

Having come under suspicion of being sympathetic to the doctrines of Spinoza, Boerhaave abandoned the idea of an ecclesiastical career and began to devote himself exclusively to medicine and science. His private practice in Leiden was not lucrative but left him time to continue his studies and begin extensive experiments in chemistry.

His highly successful teaching career began in 1701. He taught medicine at the University of Leiden and gave private courses in chemistry. During the next 8 years he published in Latin his two major medical works, The Institutes of Medicine and The Aphorisms concerning the Knowledge and Cure of Diseases. Numerous editions were produced and the works were widely translated, even into Japanese. They continued to be used as textbooks for at least 50 years after his death.

Boerhaave was appointed professor of medicine and botany in 1709. In this post he greatly improved the collection of the celebrated botanical garden of the University of Leiden and carried out an extensive correspondence with the world's leading botanists. In 1714 he became professor of medicine and a physician to St. Cecilia Hospital in Leiden. There in his small clinic he established the value of bedside teaching for medical training.

He obtained the chair of chemistry in 1718 and for 11 years held three chairs simultaneously. His definitive Elements of Chemistry (1732) became very famous and was the source of his influence on 18th-century chemistry.

A tall and robust man of immense erudition, Boerhaave was a superb teacher. He was patient, unaffected, and readily approachable by his students. They flocked from all parts of Europe to hear his lectures, thereby increasing the renown of the University of Leiden. Boerhaave died, universally esteemed, in 1738 of heart disease.

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Further Reading on Hermann Boerhaave

The definitive study of Boerhaave is G. A. Lindeboom, Herman Boerhaave: The Man and His Work (1968). A good background book is Douglas Guthrie, A History of Medicine (1945; rev. ed. 1958).