V an Helmont introduced radical empiricism into medicine in his posthumously published compendium, Ortus medicinae (1648) (van Helmont 1683). He argued, following the teachings of Paracelsus (1493/4-1541), against the notion that the imbalance of the humors caused illness. For him there had to be material reasons. Van Helmont imagined that there might be "wild spirits," which could neither be seen nor kept in vessels. He called them "chaos" (pronounced in Dutch, "gas"). Everything, when burnt, gave off different gases: Gas carbonum from burning charcoal, gas sylvester from fermenting wine and spa water, inflammable gas pinque from organic matter. His physiology was likewise material; he believed that each organ had its own spirit, or blas. This view was quite different than Paracelsus' belief that a single archeus or spirit animated the entire body. In retrospect, it is clear that van Helmont used a highly religious vocabulary to frame his materialism, which was informed by the religious world in which he functioned. Van Helmont's text on medicine is a seventeenth-century mix between highly speculative religious imagery and the technical medicine of his time, but it also included a long treatise on longevity.
An antihumorist and anti-Galenist, van Helmont developed the first notions of a medical chemistry, and one of his theories dealt with the difference between oil and fat. In his First Three Principles, he argues that elementary water is made into oil in vegetables, animals, and sulfurs; likewise, all oil is easily reduced to water. The first principle of this is that such things cannot be exchanged for each other or cease to be that which they were before. Oil is an elementary property. But it is present as a form of seed (Samen), which can be transformed into combustible substance (van Helmont 1683: 143, para. 3).
Oil is not body fat. He provides a case study to illustrate this. In his treatise on the "Law of the Double Nature of Man," van Helmont presents the case of an extremely fat person whose fat he transformed into a watery substance, which he evacuated through the bladder (van Helmont 1683: 851-2). Such transformations are not the property of oil. But even though water is passed through the kidneys, van Helmont is not convinced that the kidneys have the power to transmute fat into water even if they are healthy. He ascribes this power alone to the blood, which can transform itself into a solid.
For van Helmont, fat seems to be granted its power through the action of the stomach. But obesity is not the result of eating. He gives the example of the Capuchin monk who fasts and thirsts, but is still "fat in his body," as opposed to those who eat extremely well and remain thin. Due to some unseen working in the flesh, fat is the result of the entire body, including the blood. In the end, he sees the stomach as the "regent of digestion" (van Helmont 1683: 858). Its function (blas) is to process food. For van Helmont, the stomach is the very center of the body and his reason for this placement is theological rather than chemical, as he argues that Abraham bore the Messiah in his loins (van Helmont 1683: 850 para 45). The confusion between the gut and the loins is a telling one.
In van Helmont's guidelines for a long life, obesity is to be eschewed. Human life can be extended by medicine, but what God can offer is life eternal, not merely fleshly life. As a physician, van Helmont saw his job as prolonging the "Life of the World." What is bad for human life is clear: Carnal lust, tobacco and mushrooms, as well as "much and unreasonable gluttony" (van Helmont 1683: 1241 para 9). "Mushrooms ... breed melancholy," according to Roger Bacon's treatise on longevity (Bacon 1683: 140). Food remains at the core of health. Thus, deceiving the body by reducing hunger is dangerous. Tobacco seems to still hunger, but ultimately doesn't; it merely makes one insensitive to the natural need for food, which itself must be controlled. And so van Helmont returns to a notion of the control of food as a means of controlling the potentially obese body.
See also Roman Medicine and Dieting
References and Further Reading
Bacon, Roger (1683) The Cure of Old Age and the
Preservation of Youth, ed. and trans. Richard Browne, London: Thomas Flesher and Edward Evets.
Debus, Allen G. (2001) Chemistry and Medical Debate: Van Helmont to Boerhaave, Canton, Mass.: Science History.
Pagel, Walter (1982) Joan Baptista Van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
van Helmont, Johann Baptista (1683) Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, das ist: noch nie erhörte GrundLehren von der Natur ..., trans. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sultzbach: Johann Andrae Enders sel. Sohne.
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