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


In: Early Science and Medicine
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  • 1 University of Groningen


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?


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  • 22

     Boerhaave, A New Method, 1: 168.

  • 24

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

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  • 25

     Schwencke, Haematologia, xi-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.

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  • 26

     Schwencke, Haematologia, xviii, 34, 82, 139, 252.

  • 33

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

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  • 37

     Gaubius, Institutiones, 103-106.

  • 40

     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.

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  • 43

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

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     Gaubius, Institutions, 37-38, 85-86.

  • 46

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  • 47

     Conrad et al., The Western Medical Tradition, 371-376.

  • 53

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

  • 54

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     Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, 141-149.

  • 56

     Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, 200-209.

  • 57

     Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, 176-180.

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

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     Schwencke, Haematologia, 49.

  • 65

     Schwencke, Haematologia, xix-xx.

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     Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, 246-247.

  • 69

     von Haller, Academical Lectures, 2: 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.”

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  • 73

     Boerhaave, A New Method, 2: 211-212.

  • 83

     Cf. Ursula Klein, “Shifting Ontologies, Changing Classifications: Plant Materials from 1700 to 1830,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 36 (2005), 261-329, at 266-267.

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