Skip Navigation Bar

Chemistry and the Universities

Throughout the sixteenth century the medical faculties of European universities relied on the medical writings of the ancient and Arabic physicians. Those students who wished to learn about chemical operations were generally forced to find private instruction. In Paris Jean Beguin established a laboratory where he lectured on pharmaceutical preparations and wrote the first true chemical textbook, the Tyrocinium Chymicum (1610) which became a model for later texts with its division into animal, vegetable and mineral preparations. This text was reprinted throughout the century often with additions and commentaries by others.

However, soon there were further chemical texts. The founder of the Jardin des Plantes, Guy de la Brosse, included a lengthy discussion of chemistry in his De la Natur, Vertu, et Vtilit des Plantes (1628) and after the appointment of William Davisson we find a succession of chemical textbooks written for the lecture series presented at the Jardin des Plantes. Davisson's own textbook was followed by those of his successors; Nicholas Le Favre Christofle Glaser and Moyse Charas. The tradition culminated in the Cours de chymie of Nicholas Lemery which appeared in French in numerous editions from 1675 to 1757 and was translated into Latin, German, English and Spanish. However, the courses at the Jardin des Plantes were only one source for students to learn chemistry. Throughout Europe there is evidence of private tutors and chemical entrepreneurs who established courses of their own.

With a continually growing interest it was to be expected that the universities would have to consider this new subject. But although the Paracelsians looked upon chemistry as a key to a total new philosophy of nature and man, it was the physicians who were most concerned. As the idea of a chemically operating macrocosm and microcosm declined, interest in the medical value of chemically prepared substances grew. The result was that chemical instruction gradually became established in the medical programs of European universities while the natural philosophy curriculum remained wedded to subjects we would classify as the physical sciences.

A room featuring a man standing on the left side of the room behind a table instructing students seated on benches on the right side of the room. In the back of the room a man is kneeling holding a torch under a chemical experiment.
Renaissance instruction in preparation of chemicals. From Annibal Barlet, Le Vray et methodique cours de Chymie (Paris, 1653)

There is little doubt that the preparation of some chemical substances was taught in a few universities in the sixteenth century. At Montpellier, and elsewhere, for instance, the authority of Dioscorides permitted the use of some "stones and minerals" in medicine and it is in this tradition that a limited number of inorganic substances were accepted by physicians. However, the first chain in chemical medicine was created at Marburg in 1609. The professor, Johann Hartmann was a Paracelsian in the broadest sense, but his teaching emphasized pharmaceutical preparations. He prepared editions of the practical texts of Jean Beguin's Tyrocinium and Oswald Croll's Basilica Chymica which were extremely popular.

Hartmann's appointment was the first of many. A course in chemistry for medical students was offered at Jena as early as 1612 by Zacharias Brendel and this was continued first by his son and then by Werner Rolfinck who became the first Professor of Chemistry in the Medical Faculty. His long tenure at Jena ensured the importance of that university in this field. These teachers wrote their own textbooks following the French tradition. And during the second half of the seventeenth century the medical faculties of many Central European universities established chairs in chemistry: Wittenburg, Helmstedt, Leipzig and Halle among them.

In the Netherlands Leiden began teaching in chemistry in 1669 and here too the early instructors published their own texts. Both Oxford and Cambridge began courses in chemistry in 1683, and even in Paris the Medical Faculty established a professorial chair for the teaching of both chemical and Galenic pharmacy in 1696. In short, chemistry was well established in European universities by mid-century and it had become almost universal by the end of the century. However, the acceptance of chemistry was through medicine rather than through natural philosophy.