The Nature of Blood: Debating Haematology and Blood Chemistry in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic

in Early Science and Medicine
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What is blood? Despite William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, many questions about blood itself remained unanswered. This article asks how and why Dutch medical men in the early eighteenth century initiated studies to understand the properties of blood. Medical professors analysed blood in chemical laboratories, as they believed that blood chemistry promoted new understandings of human physiology and pathology. Others, however, grew to be deeply sceptical about chemistry and argued that there existed a discrepancy between blood in vitro and blood in vivo. They preferred quantitative measurements, hoping that these would provide useful knowledge for making diagnoses and treating wounds. This article analyses these competing approaches to blood research, arguing that the discussion went beyond the problem of methodology and was directly linked to the question of blood’s essential yet disputed quality: was blood alive?

The Nature of Blood: Debating Haematology and Blood Chemistry in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic

in Early Science and Medicine




 Noel G. Coley“Early Blood Chemistry in Britain and France,” Clinical Chemistry 47 (2001) 2166-2178at 2167.


 BoerhaaveA New Method1: 167. Emphasis original. Barbara Orland “The Fluid Mechanics of Nutrition: Herman Boerhaave’s Synthesis of Seventeenth-Century Circulation Physiology” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (2012) 357-369.


 BoerhaaveA New Method1: 168.


 GaubiusInstitutiones 160. “Compara cum sero lactis serum sanguinis cum cremore rubrum cum caseo fibram! Multa invenies utrinque communia.” Idem Institutions 106.


 SchwenckeHaematologiaxi-xii. “Sanguinem Chemice tractatum [...] breviter exposui reddidique rationem cur per analysin notam indolem sanguinis naturalem nunquam comprehendet Medicus.” Idem Verhandeling van het bloed xxi-xxii.


 SchwenckeHaematologiaxviii 34 82 139 252.


 BoerhaaveElementa chemiae1: 29; idem Elements of Chemistry 1: 18. Here Boerhaave specifically suggested that his students read Hoffmann Observationum physico-chymicarum (Halle 1722).


 GaubiusInstitutiones 103-106.


 Hasok Chang“Compositionism as a Dominant Way of Knowing in Modern Chemistry,” History of Science 49 (2011) 247-268; Chang Is Water H2O? 37-42. Chang prefers to use the term ‘principlist’ over ‘principalist’ on the grounds that it refers to principles not principals.


 Nalini Bhushan“What is a Chemical Property?” Synthese 155 (2007) 293-305.


 GaubiusInstitutions37-38 85-86.




 Conrad et al.The Western Medical Tradition371-376.


 Gaubius to Sanches 23 September 1761ibid. 123-125.


 Thomas Schwencke“Aanmerkingen over verscheide manieren van bloedstelpen, en de voornaamste bloedstelpende middelen in de heelkunde,” Verhandelingen van de Hollandse Maatschappy der Weetenschappen 2 (1755) 225-250.


 SchwenckeVerhandeling van het bloed141-149.


 SchwenckeVerhandeling van het bloed200-209.


 SchwenckeVerhandeling van het bloed176-180.


 John C. Powers“Measuring Fire: Herman Boerhaave and the Introduction of Thermometry into Chemistry,” Osiris 29 (2014) 158-177.






 SchwenckeVerhandeling van het bloed246-247.


 von HallerAcademical Lectures2: 167-168. In the original Latin von Haller made a distinction between particles brought about by natural body heat and those made by the intensity of fire see Praelectiones 2: 312. “Id nobis sufficit demonstrari per id experimentum inesse sanguini particulas alias aliis mobiliores quarum aliquae solo calore hominis sani eleventur aliae igni leniori aliae demum ultima vehementia ignis mobiles atque volatiles reddi possint.”


 BoerhaaveA New Method2: 211-212.


 Cf. Ursula Klein“Shifting Ontologies, Changing Classifications: Plant Materials from 1700 to 1830,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science36 (2005) 261-329at 266-267.


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    Lady Caliste bleeds to death after her physician’s fatal mistake. Noach van der Meer Jr., after Jacobus Buys, illustration for “Caliste,” in C.F. Gellert, Fabelen en vertelsels (Amsterdam, 1777). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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    Students mixing and distilling fluids in the Leiden chemical laboratory, from Boerhaave, Institutiones et experimenta chemiae (Paris, 1724), frontispiece. Ghent University Library.

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    Jacob Houbraken, after Hieronymus van der Mij, portrait of Hieronymus David Gaubius, 1744. Heritage Leiden and Surroundings.

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    Hendrik Pothoven, after a painting by Verheyden, portrait of Thomas Schwencke, 1782. Municipal Archives, The Hague.

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    Thermometer (left) and hydrometer (right) in Schwencke, Haematologia (The Hague, 1743). University Library, Groningen.

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    Blood corpuscles observed through a microscope, in Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Arcana natura detecta (Leiden, 1719). Wellcome Collection , licensed under CC-BY 4.0.


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