The “Subtile Aereal Spirit of Fountains”: Mineral Waters and the History of Pneumatic Chemistry


In: Early Science and Medicine

The standard history of pneumatic chemistry is dominated by a landmark-discoverers-type narrative stretching from Robert Boyle, through Stephen Hales, Joseph Black, and Joseph Priestley, to Antoine Lavoisier. This article challenges this view by demonstrating the importance of the study of mineral waters – and their “aerial component” – to the evolution of pneumatic chemistry, from around van Helmont to the period before Black (1640s–1750s). Among key figures examined are Joan Baptista van Helmont, Johann Joachim Becher, Robert Boyle, Friedrich Hoffmann, and William Brownrigg.


  • 5

     See Jon Eklund, “Of a Spirit in the Water: Some Early Ideas on the Aerial Dimension,” Isis, 67 (1976), 527–50. Jon Eklund, “Chemical Analysis and the Phlogiston Theory” (Dissertation, Yale, 1971), ch. 7. Noel G. Coley, “Physicians and the Chemical Analysis of Mineral Waters in Eighteenth-Century England,” Medical History, 26 (1982), 123–44. Noel G. Coley, “Physicians, Chemists and the Analysis of Mineral Waters: ‘The Most Difficult Part of Chemistry’,” Medical History Supplement, 10 (1990), 56–66.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 17

     Paracelsus, “Von den natürlichen Bädern - ca. 1525,” in Sämtliche Werke: Medizinische, naturwissenschaftliche und philosophische Schriften: Frühe Schriften zur Heilmittellehre, ed. Bernhard Aschner (Munich, 1930): 221–6. Georg Agricola, De ortu et causis subterraneorum (Basel, 1546).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 19

     Coley, “‘Cures without Care’,” 191–2; Noel G. Coley, “The Preparation and Uses of Artificial Mineral Waters (ca. 1680–1825),” Ambix, 31 (1984), 32–48, on 32. Eklund, “Of a Spirit in the Water,” 531.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 22

     Pagel, Joan Baptista van Helmont, 57–8.

  • 23

     Van Helmont, Supplementum de fontibus spadanis, 652. Of the Fountain of the Spaw, 697–8.

  • 24

     Walter Pagel, “Helmont, Johannes (Joan) Baptista Van” in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. C.C. Gillispie, F.L. Holmes, N. Koertge (Detroit, 2008) [hereafter CDSB], vol. 6, 253–9. Steffen Ducheyne, “Helmont, Johannes (Joan) Baptista Van,” CDSB, vol. 21, 277–81. Van Helmont, Supplementum de fontibus spadanis. Pagel, Joan Baptista van Helmont, 66–7. Crosland, “Slippery Substances.”

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 25

     J.R. Partington, “Joan Baptista van Helmont,” Annals of Science, 1 (1936), 359–84, 370–5. J.R. Partington, A History of Chemistry (London, 1961), vol. 2, 227–32. Van Helmont“De flatibus” in Ortus medicinae (‘ed. nova’, Amsterdam, 1652), 336. These labels correspond to windy, fatty, dry, sooty, woody, sulfurous, winey, musty, and flammable.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 27

     Pagel, Joan Baptista van Helmont, 24–5, 49–52. William R. Newman and Lawrence Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (2002), 61–6. Antonio Clericuzio, “From van Helmont to Boyle: A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England,” The British Journal for the History of Science, 26 (1993), 303–34, on 307–8.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 28

     Van Helmont, Ortus Medicinae, 86. For van Helmont’s corpuscular notions and the relation between his conceptions of gases, elements, and vapors, see William R. Newman, Gehennical Fire: the Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 112–3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 29

     John A. Norris, “Early Theories of Aqueous Mineral Genesis in the Sixteenth Century,” Ambix, 54 (2007), 69–86, on 85.

  • 30

     Newman and Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire, 60–6.

  • 31

     Van Helmont and van Helmont, Ortus medicinae, 110. English from van Helmont, Chandler, and van Helmont, Van Helmont’s Works, 110.

  • 34

     John A. Norris, “The Mineral Exhalation Theory of Metallogenesis in Pre-Modern Mineral Science,” Ambix, 53 (2006), 43–65, on 57–59.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 37

     Becher and Stahl, Physica Subterranea, 80–96.

  • 38

     Pagel, Joan Baptista van Helmont, 57–8. Smith, The Business of Alchemy, 204–7. Becher and Stahl, Physica subterranea, 102.

  • 39

     Becher and Stahl, Physica subterranea, 80–3, 87–8, 102.

  • 40

     Becher and Stahl, Physica subterranea, 80–92.

  • 43

     Becher and Stahl, Physica subterranea, 145. Frank D. Adams, “Origin and Nature of Ore Deposits an Historical Study,” Geological Society of America Bulletin, 45 (1934), 375–424, 397–400. Oldroyd, “Some Phlogistic Mineralogical Schemes,” 276. Norris, “The Mineral Exhalation Theory.”

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 44

     Friedrich Hoffmann, “Methodus examinandi aquas salubres,” in Dissertationes physico-medicae curiosae selectiores, ad sanitatem tuendam maxime pertinentes (Leiden, 1703), part 2, 161–205, 182. Friedrich Hoffmann, “De elementis aquarum mineralium,” in Friderici Hoffmanni Opera omnia physico-medica denuo revisa, correcta & aucta (Geneva, 1740), vol. 5, 131–40, 135. Friedrich Hoffmann and Peter Shaw, New Experiments and Observations upon Mineral Waters Directing their Farther Use for the Preservation of Health, and the Cure of Diseases (London, 1731), 31–2. Brownrigg, “An Experimental Enquiry,” 236. WB4, 1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 52

     Lister, De fontibus medicatis, 5.

  • 53

     Lister, De fontibus medicatis, 33.

  • 54

     Duclos, Observations, 8.

  • 55

     Lister, De fontibus medicatis, 58. On Lister and pyrites, see Anna Marie Roos, “Martin Lister (1639–1712) and Fools’ Gold,” Ambix, 51 (2004), 23–41.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 56

     Lister, De fontibus medicatis, 74.

  • 57

     Lister, De fontibus medicatis, 65.

  • 58

     Lister, De fontibus medicatis, 80.

  • 62

     Boyle, Short Memoirs, 4–5, 7.

  • 63

     Boyle, Short Memoirs, 66.

  • 64

     Boyle, Short Memoirs, 74.

  • 65

     Boyle, Short Memoirs, 99.

  • 66

     Coley, “Preparation and Uses,” 34. Coley, “Physicians, Chemists,” 57.

  • 72

     Rothschuh, “Studien,” 178–80. De Ceglia, I fari di Halle, 309–10. Hoffmann, “De elementis,” 132. Hoffmann and Shaw, New Experiments, 17.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 73

     Hoffmann, “Methodus examinandi,” 165–86. Hoffmann, “De elementis,” 131–36.

  • 75

     Hoffmann, “Methodus examinandi,” 176. Hoffmann, “De elementis,” 134.

  • 77

     Hoffmann and Shaw, New Experiments, 30.

  • 80

     WB4, 1. Eklund, “Chemical Analysis,” 275. Brownrigg, “An Experimental Enquiry,” 237.

  • 81

     See Eklund, “Chemical Analysis,” 257–89. Eklund, “Of a Spirit in the Water,” 527–36.

  • 85

     Shaw, An Enquiry into the Contents, 140–1.

  • 86

     Shaw, An Enquiry into the Contents, 142.

  • 88

     Eklund, “Of a Spirit in the Water,” 535–6.

  • 96

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 54–5.

  • 97

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 57.

  • 98

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 80, 88.

  • 99

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 88–9.

  • 100

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 88.

  • 101

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 88–9 (italics original).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 102

     Hoffmann, “De fontis,” 236–7. Venel, “Mémoire sur l’analyse des eaux de Selters ou de Seltz,” 93.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 186 175 5
Full Text Views 163 146 0
PDF Downloads 10 8 0