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,” Isis67 (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.

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  • 17

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

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  • 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.

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  • 22

     PagelJoan Baptista van Helmont57–8.

  • 23

     Van HelmontSupplementum de fontibus spadanis652. Of the Fountain of the Spaw 697–8.

  • 24

     Walter Pagel“Helmont, Johannes (Joan) Baptista Van” in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biographyed. 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.”

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  • 25

     J.R. Partington“Joan Baptista van Helmont,” Annals of Science1 (1936) 359–84370–5. 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.

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  • 27

     PagelJoan Baptista van Helmont24–5 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.

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  • 28

     Van HelmontOrtus Medicinae86. 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.

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  • 29

     John A. Norris“Early Theories of Aqueous Mineral Genesis in the Sixteenth Century,” Ambix54 (2007) 69–86on 85.

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     Newman and PrincipeAlchemy Tried in the Fire60–6.

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     Van Helmont and van HelmontOrtus medicinae110. English from van Helmont Chandler and van Helmont Van Helmont’s Works 110.

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     John A. Norris“The Mineral Exhalation Theory of Metallogenesis in Pre-Modern Mineral Science,” Ambix53 (2006) 43–65on 57–59.

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     Becher and StahlPhysica Subterranea80–96.

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     PagelJoan Baptista van Helmont57–8. Smith The Business of Alchemy 204–7. Becher and Stahl Physica subterranea 102.

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     Becher and StahlPhysica subterranea80–3 87–8 102.

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     Becher and StahlPhysica subterranea80–92.

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     Becher and StahlPhysica subterranea145. 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.”

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  • 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.

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  • 52

     ListerDe fontibus medicatis5.

  • 53

     ListerDe fontibus medicatis33.

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     DuclosObservations8.

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     ListerDe fontibus medicatis58. On Lister and pyrites see Anna Marie Roos “Martin Lister (1639–1712) and Fools’ Gold” Ambix 51 (2004) 23–41.

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  • 56

     ListerDe fontibus medicatis74.

  • 57

     ListerDe fontibus medicatis65.

  • 58

     ListerDe fontibus medicatis80.

  • 62

     BoyleShort Memoirs4–5 7.

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     BoyleShort Memoirs66.

  • 64

     BoyleShort Memoirs74.

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     BoyleShort Memoirs99.

  • 66

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

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

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

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

  • 77

     Hoffmann and ShawNew Experiments30.

  • 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.

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     ShawAn Enquiry into the Contents140–1.

  • 86

     ShawAn Enquiry into the Contents142.

  • 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).

  • 102

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

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