IATROCHEMISTRY (Medical Chemists)

ALTHOUGH not one of the alchemists ever succeeded in transmuting a base metal into gold orin preparing the elixir of life, they were focused in the discovery of many new chemical substances, such as allcohol, the mineral acids and many metallic salts. In the 16th –17th centuries another school of chemists arose, called Iatrochemists (Medical Chemists), who attempted to apply chemistry to the preparation of medicines and to the explanation of processes in the living body.

Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, commonly called Paracelsus, was born in 1493 at Einsiedeln in Switzerland. He was the founder of the Iatrochemistry.
He was appointed professor of medicine at Basel and lectured in German.
Paracelsus’s writings are full of mystical ideas. Sometimes, he dictated his works when drunk.

Paracelcus believed in astrology and associated different parts of body with planets, e.g. the heart with the Sun, the brain with the Moon, the liver with Jupiter, etc. He also believed that digestion was caused by an independent spiritual being, called Archeus, in the stomach.
He directed attention to the great utility of a knowledge of chemistry in medicine and pharmacy. In medicine he used tinctures, essences, axtracts of plants, etc. He believed that many diseasess were caused by morbid depossits formed in the body, as tartar is deposited from wine on standing.

Paracelsus was impressed by the industry of the medical chemists, who did not over-dress and wear gold rings and chains like the physicians, but worked patiently in the laboratory, wearing leather aprons and not boasting of their skill.
In theory he believed in the four element, but thought they appeared in bodies as the three principles, which are (1) salt; (2) sulphur and (3) mercury. The last two had long been recognized by the alchemists, but Paracelsus seems to have been the first to add salt, making up the “tria prima”.

Salt was the principle of fixity and incombustibility; mercury of fusibility and volatility; sulphur of inflammability. Paracelsus compared the “tria prima” with body, soul and spirit.
He was the first to use the name “alcohol” for strong spirit of wine and the first in Europe to mention zinc, which he calls a “bastard metal”.

Van Helmont
Johann Baptista van Helmont was born in Brussels in 1579. He took his degree on medicine in 1609 and at the same time, he married and he says “God has given me a pious and noble wife. I retired with her to Vilvorde and there for seven years I dedicated my self to pyrotechny (Chemistry) and to relief of the poor”.
Van Helmont’s works were published in 1648 as Ortus Medicinae. He made a careful study of the chemical as well as the medical writings of Paracelsus (which he later found full of error).

Van Helmont says that by means of alkahest, or universal solvent, he had converted vegetables or oak charcoal into water. He calls the alkahest ignis aqua, probably nitric acid. In some of examples which he gives of converting bodies into water, he neutralizes acids with chalk and distils off water.
An important feature of van Helmot’s chemical work is its quantitative character; he made extensive use of the balance and emphasized that metals when dissolved in acids are not destroyed but can be recovered again by suitable means.

Van Helmont describes the preparation of nitric acid by distilling equal parts of saltpetre, vitriol and alum. First dried and then mixed together and apparently knew that it converted sulphur into sulphuric acid.
He mention aqua regia, made from nitric acid and sal ammoniac and the gas (chlorine aand nirosyl chloride) envolved from it.
He describes the destillation of spirit of sea salt.

Source : 
History of Chemistry materials
International Chemistry Education 2011
Yogyakarta State University 

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