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Frontispiece to Thomas Willis' 1663 book "Diatribae duae medico-philosophicae - quarum prior agit de fermentatione", a treatise on fermentation as a mysterious key to transformations (from mash to beer or from health to fevers), engraved and published by Gerbrandus Schagen in Amsterdam

Iatrochemistry (or chemical medicine) is a branch of both chemistry and medicine. ἰατρός (iatrós) was the Greek word for "physician" or "medicine". Having its roots in alchemy, iatrochemistry seeks to provide chemical solutions to diseases and medical ailments.[1]

This area of science has fallen out of use in Europe since the rise of modern establishment medicine. However, iatrochemistry was popular between 1525 and 1660, especially in Flanders. Its most notable leader was Paracelsus, an important Swiss alchemist of the 16th century. Iatrochemists believed that physical health was dependent on a specific balance of bodily fluids. Iatrochemical therapies and concepts are still in wide use in South Asia, East Asia and amongst their diasporic communities worldwide.

History in Europe[edit]

Coelum philosophorum by Philippus Ulstadius, 1527

The preparation of medicines had become a part of alchemy by the early modern period. Around 1350, John of Rupescissa advocated the extraction of the "essence" of both plants and minerals. He often used two relatively new substances during this period: an alcohol distilled from wine and strong mineral acids. Later, the author "Pseudo-Lull" (i.e. Ramon Llull or one of his followers) picked up and helped in expanding John of Rupescissa's theory.

The most impactive vocal proponent of iatrochemistry was Theopharastus von Honhenheim, also known as Paracelsus (1493–1541). He put his effort into the transmutation of metals and emphasized iatrochemistry in his works. Paracelsus believed that diseases were caused by poisons, but the poisons were not entirely negative. He suggested that poisons, or diseases, can also be cured by poisons. Thus, poisons could have beneficial medical effects. Paracelsus's claim led to many chemically prepared medicines in this period containing toxic components: arsenic, antimony, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. However, his views were not accepted by many scholars until his incoherent writings were organized into more systematic form by his followers. Gradually, many physicians accepted Paracelsian remedies although some disagreed with Paracelsus's philosophy. Later, the physicians introduced chemical medicine in form of iatrochemistry, a system of medical explanation and practice.

Philipp Ulstad, who wrote some of the first books on chemical medicine, paved the way for a closer link between alchemy and medicine. His lucid, concise prose made Coelum philosophorum (1527) one of the most reissued chemical-medicine books of the 16th and 17th centuries.[citation needed] This documentation of knowledge was a trend that began in the mid-16th century and it allowed knowledge that was typically limited to those in apprenticeships to be accessible to anyone.[2]

In the early seventeenth century, Jan Baptista van Helmont came to the scene.[vague] He studied the human body and its functions, and applied his knowledge of "chymistry" as a way of understanding and curing the body. He claimed that iatrochemists stressed the chemical reaction of effervescence, fermentation, and putrefaction as the basis of all physiology. Van Helmont used chemical methods to study bodily products such as urine and blood. His discoveries combined with Paracelsus's built the fundamentals of chemical preparation of medicines and the use of chemical methods in order to diagnose the diseases. Natural philosopher, Robert Boyle, contributed greatly to the understanding of respiration by showing that air (or oxygen), which is required for fire in combustion reactions, is also needed for human breathing.[3]

History in South Asia[edit]

Iatrochemistry forms a major part of the Indian alchemical tradition (Sanskrit rasaśāstra, रसशास्त्र). Alchemical texts start to be composed in Sanskrit in South Asia from the end of the first millennium CE,[4] and a flourishing literature developed and continued even into the twentieth century.[5] These works contain extensive chapters on the use of alchemical recipes for healing.[6]

Challenge to Galenic physiology[edit]

Iatrochemistry was a new practice in the 17th century, a time when traditional medicines were based on a legacy from the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. Much of this tradition was derived from Galen and Avicenna. The iatrochemists rejected the traditional medical theory, mostly from Galenic traditionalists. Galen traditionalists sought to establish the balance of temperament within the bodies. There are two pairs of qualities, hot and cold, and wet and dry. Sickness came from the imbalance of one quality. That is, a cold was an excess of heat (hot quality), so it can be cured by reducing hot quality or by increasing cold quality. The iatrochemists, influenced by Paracelsus's belief, believed that the sickness was from the outside source, not because of the imbalance of the body.

Another controversy between Galenic traditionalists and iatrochemists was the way to use herbs. The Galenic traditionalists thought that the strength of remedies relied on the amount of plant materials that was used. The iatrochemists, however, supported the chemical preparation of materials of remedies to increase the effectiveness of the materials or to find the stronger medicine.

Additionally, Galenic traditionalists argued that chemically prepared medicines were poisonous, and the iatrochemists were inadequately trained. The former was true, and, in some cases, both were correct. Since Paracelsus claimed that poisons could have beneficial medical effects, the number of toxic ingredients used in chemical medicines had increased. Galenic traditionalists later adapted medical method and some remedies to use in their own fields.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Iatrochemistry is an example in which science in medicine turned into speculation.Bynum, W.F. (1994). Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge university press. p. 93. ISBN 9780521272056. 
  2. ^ Beltran, Maria. "Books of Distillation: Science, Technique and the Printing Press in Early Modern Europe" (PDF). Joint Meeting of BSHS, CSHPS/SCHPS, HSS. 
  3. ^ Lindemann, Mary (2010). Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-521-73256-7. 
  4. ^ White, David Gordon (1996). "Ch. 5: Tantric and Siddha Alchemical Literature". The Alchemical Body. Chicago: University of Chicago. 
  5. ^ E.g., the multi-volume Mukherji, Bhudeb (1926). Rasa-Jala-Nidhi. Calcutta. , reprinted in 1984 and 1998 and still available.
  6. ^ Meulenbeld, Gerrit Jan (1999–2002). History of Indian Medical Literature. Groningen: Egbert Forsten. ISBN 9069801248.  Vol.IIA, pp. 581--787 provides an extensive survey of the primary and secondary sources for Indian iatrochemical literature.

Further reading[edit]