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The Nature of Blood

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine book series (PSMEMM)


This chapter analyses changing perceptions of blood in eighteenth-century medicine. Chemical analyses of the peculiar properties of blood led to the development of new understandings of physiology. But this approach developed by Herman Boerhaave and Hieronymus Gaubius also provoked criticism: Thomas Schwencke grew deeply sceptical about chemistry, convinced as he was that blood in vitro and blood in vivo were drastically different fluids. Coining his method ‘haematology’, Schwencke preferred measuring the weight and temperature of blood for diagnostic purposes. Analysing these competing claims, Verwaal argues that the debate went beyond the problem of methodology, and was directly linked to the essential question: was blood alive? Verwaal, then, offers a new perspective on perceptions of blood and the living body in the eighteenth century.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-51541-6_3
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  1. 1.

    On the purported dichotomy between mechanism and vitalism, see Anita Guerrini, ‘James Keill, George Cheyne, and Newtonian Physiology, 1690–1740’, Journal of the History of Biology, 18 (1985), 247–66. On modern misconceptions of vitalism, see Charles T. Wolfe, ‘From Substantival to Functional Vitalism and Beyond: Animas, Organisms and Attitudes’, Eidos, 14 (2011), 212–35. Wolfe and Terada encourage scholars to instead focus on animal economy or physiology in Charles T. Wolfe and Motoichi Terada, ‘The Animal Economy as Object and Program in Montpellier Vitalism’, Science in Context, 21 (2008), 537–79.

  2. 2.

    Maxwell M. Wintrobe, ed. Blood, Pure and Eloquent: A Story of Discovery, of People, and of Ideas (New York, 1980); Douglas Starr, Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce (London, 1999). On circulation, see Roger French, ‘Harvey in Holland: Circulation and the Calvinists’, in The Medical Revolution, ed. Roger French and Andrew Wear (Cambridge, 1989), 46–86; Roger French, William Harvey’s Natural Philosophy (Cambridge, 1994).

  3. 3.

    Domenico Bertoloni Meli, ‘The Color of Blood: Between Sensory Experience and Epistemic Significance’, in Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (Chicago, 2011), 117–34.

  4. 4.

    Andrew Cunningham, ‘The Principality of Blood: William Harvey, the Blood, and the Early Transfusion Experiments’, in Blood – Symbol – Liquid, ed. Catrien Santing and Jetze Touber (Leuven, 2012), 193–205.

  5. 5.

    William Harvey, Exercitationes de generatione animalium (Amsterdam, 1651); idem, Anatomical Exercitations Concerning the Generation of Living Creatures (London, 1653).

  6. 6.

    Noel G. Coley, ‘Early Blood Chemistry in Britain and France’, Clinical Chemistry, 47 (2001), 2166–78, here 2167.

  7. 7.

    Lawrence M. Principe, ‘A Revolution Nobody Noticed? Changes in Early Eighteenth-Century Chymistry’, in New Narratives, ed. Lawrence M. Principe (Dordrecht, 2007), 1–22.

  8. 8.

    Albrecht von Haller, ed. Praelectiones academicae in proprias institutiones rei medicae, 6 vols (Göttingen, 1739–1744), vol. 2, 325; idem, Dr. Boerhaave’s Academical Lectures on the Theory of Physic: Being a Genuine Translation of his Institutes and Explanatory Comment, 6 vols (London, 1742–1746), vol. 2, 175.

  9. 9.

    Herman Boerhaave, A New Method of Chemistry: Including the Theory and Practice of that Art: Laid down on Mechanical Principles, and Accommodated to the Uses of Life, trans. Peter Shaw and Ephraim Chambers, 2 vols (London, 1727), vol. 1, 167.

  10. 10.

    Thomas Schwencke, Schets van de heelmiddelen en haar uytwerkingen op het lichaam (The Hague, 1745), 3. Hieronymus David Gaubius, Institutiones pathologiae medicinalis (Leiden, 1758), 155; idem, The Institutions of Medicinal Pathology, trans. Charles Erskine (Edinburgh, 1778), 103.

  11. 11.

    Cathy McClive, Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France (Farnham, 2015).

  12. 12.

    Thomas Schwencke, Haematologia, sive Sanguinis historia, experimentis passim superstructa (The Hague, 1743), 68; idem, Haematologia, ofte Verhandeling van het bloed, trans. Abraham Westerhoff (The Hague, 1744), 109–10.

  13. 13.

    Hieronymus David Gaubius, Sermo academicus de regimine mentis quod medicorum est (Leiden, 1747), 113; idem, On the Passions: or a Philosophical Discourse Concerning the Duty and Office of Physicians in the Management and Cure of the Disorders of the Mind, trans. J. Taprell (London, 1760?), 116.

  14. 14.

    Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York, 2007).

  15. 15.

    Lawrence I. Conrad et al., The Western Medical Tradition: 800 BC to AD 1800 (Cambridge, 1995).

  16. 16.

    ‘Praelectiones publicae chemicae’, vol. 2, p. 45.

  17. 17.

    Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, xxii. In the original Latin, Schwencke used the more generic term humor, but Westerhoff decided to translate it as ‘juice of life’. Westerhoff came from Gouda had also studied at Leiden, promoting in 1738.

  18. 18.

    Schwencke, Haematologia, 9. Emphasis added.

  19. 19.

    Harvey, De generatione, 304. C. Webster, ‘Harvey’s De Generatione: Its Origins and Relevance to the Theory of Circulation’, British Journal for the History of Science, 3 (1967), 262–74, here 272. On Harvey’s notion of the soul residing in the blood, see Christopher Hill, ‘William Harvey and the Idea of Monarchy’, Past and Present, 27 (1964), 54–72; Ann Thomson, Bodies of Thought: Science, Religion, and the Soul in the Early Enlightenment (Oxford, 2008), 68–74.

  20. 20.

    Scottish anatomist John Hunter (1728–1793) continued to reiterate the notion of blood as the indispensable factor of life when he stated that ‘Blood is not only alive itself, but it is the support of life in every part of the body’ in John Hunter, A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation and Gun-Shot Wounds (London, 1794), 85.

  21. 21.

    Susannah Gibson, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order (Oxford, 2015).

  22. 22.

    Boerhaave, A New Method, vol. 1, 167. Emphasis in 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), 357–69.

  23. 23.

    Boerhaave, A New Method, vol. 1, 168.

  24. 24.

    John Ellis, An Essay towards a Natural History of the Corallines, and other Marine Productions of the Like Kind, Commonly Found on the Coasts of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1755), 2.

  25. 25.

    Gaubius, Institutiones, 160; idem, Institutions, 106.

  26. 26.

    Schwencke, Haematologia, xi–xii; idem, Verhandeling van het bloed, xxi–xxii.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., xviii, 34, 82, 139, 252.

  28. 28.

    Antonius de Haen to Gerard van Swieten, The Hague, 1743–1751, in Antonius de Haen, Opuscula quaedam inedita, ed. Joseph Eyerel, 2 vols (Vienna, 1795), vol. 1, 48. Cf. Jacob Boersma, Antonius de Haen, 1704–1776: Leven en werk (Assen, 1963), 17.

  29. 29.

    ‘Praelectiones publicae chemicae’, vol. 2, p. 37. Emphasis added.

  30. 30.

    Besides Boerhaave’s official chemical textbook Elementa chemiae (Leiden, 1732), students’ lecture notes circulated widely, such as ‘Viri Clarissimi Hieronymi Davidis Gaubii […], Dictata in Chemiam’, 3 vols, Leiden, c. 1750. University Library, Leiden, MS BPL 1477.

  31. 31.

    Rina Knoeff, Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738): Calvinist Chemist and Physician (Amsterdam, 2002); Ursula Klein, ‘Experimental History and Herman Boerhaave’s Chemistry of Plants’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 34 (2003), 533–67; John C. Powers, Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts (Chicago, 2012).

  32. 32.

    Quotations are taken from Boerhaave, A New Method, vol. 1, 194. This exposition was translated – with poetic licence – from idem, Institutiones et experimenta chemiae, 2 vols (‘Paris’, 1724), vol. 1, 146–7. For his authorised version of the usefulness of chemistry to medicine, see Herman Boerhaave, Elementa chemiae, quae anniversario labore docuit in publicis, privatisque scholis, 2 vols (Leiden, 1732), vol. 1, 83–4; idem, Elements of Chemistry: Being the Annual Lectures, trans. Timothy Dallowe, 2 vols (London, 1735), vol. 1, 52–3.

  33. 33.

    Both Boerhaave and Gaubius owned a copy of Stahl’s Fundamenta chymiae dogmaticae et experimentalis (Nuremberg, 1723). See the auction catalogues ‘Bibliotheca Boerhaaviana sive catalogus librorum instructissimae bibliothecae viri summi D. Hermanni Boerhaave’ (Leiden, 1739), 56; ‘Bibliotheca Gaubiana sive Catalogus librorum viri celeberrimi Hieronymi Davidis Gaubii’ (Leiden, 1783), 65. For the sums of money for which Boerhaave’s 3334 titles were sold, see ‘Bibliotheca Boerhaaviana’, Leeuwarden, Tresoar, s 66 AW.

  34. 34.

    On Stahl countering iatrochemical perspectives, see for example Ku-ming Chang, ‘Fermentation, Phlogiston and Matter Theory: Chemistry and Natural Philosophy in Georg Ernst Stahl’s Zymotechnia Fundamentalis’, Early Science and Medicine, 7 (2002), 31–63.

  35. 35.

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

  36. 36.

    Victor D. Boantza and Leslie Tomory, ‘The “subtile Aereal Spirit of Fountains”: Mineral Waters and the History of Pneumatic Chemistry’, Early Science and Medicine, 21 (2016), 303–31, here 319–22.

  37. 37.

    In 1731, the Leiden Ordines lectionum listed Gaubius’s lectures as ‘naturam Humorum corporis humani experimentis Chemicis’ in P.C. Molhuysen, Bronnen tot de geschiedenis der Leidsche Universiteit, 7 vols (The Hague, 1913–1924), vol. 5, 39.

  38. 38.

    Gaubius, Institutiones, 200–312; idem, Institutions, 106.

  39. 39.

    Ibid., 103–6.

  40. 40.

    The term phlogiston was derived from the Greek phlogistós, set on fire’. For a good reappraisal of the phlogiston theory, see Hasok Chang, Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism (Dordrecht, 2012), 1–70.

  41. 41.

    Robert Siegfried, From Elements to Atoms: A History of Chemical Composition (Philadelphia, 2002).

  42. 42.

    Hasok Chang, ‘Compositionism as a Dominant Way of Knowing in Modern Chemistry’, History of Science, 49 (2011), 247–68; idem, Is Water H2O?, 37–42. Chang prefers to use the term ‘principlist’ over ‘principalist’, because it refers to principles, not principals.

  43. 43.

    Gaubius, Institutiones, 57; idem, Institutions, 37.

  44. 44.

    ‘Praelectiones publicae chemicae’, vol. 2, p. 37.

  45. 45.

    Nalini Bhushan, ‘What is a Chemical Property?’, Synthese, 155 (2007), 293–305.

  46. 46.

    Gaubius, Institutions, 37–8, 85–6.

  47. 47.

    Gaubius, Institutiones, 161; idem, Institutions, 107.

  48. 48.

    Ibid., 83–9.

  49. 49.

    Conrad et al., The Western Medical Tradition, 371–6.

  50. 50.

    Schwencke, Haematologia. Schwencke first coined the term haematology according to Harry F.P. Hillen, ‘De eerste Nederlandse hematoloog: Thomas Schwencke (1694–1767)’, Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Hematologie , 7 (2010), 17–20.

  51. 51.

    Eduard Sandifort, ‘Levensbeschryving van den Hooggeleerden Heere Thomas Schwencke’, in idem, Natuur- en genees-kundige bibliotheek, 11 vols (The Hague, 1765–1775), vol. 3, 429–36.

  52. 52.

    Eduard van Biema, Les Huguetan de Mercier et de Vrijhoeven: histoire d’une famille de financiers huguenots de la fin du XVIIe jusqu’à la moitié du XVIII siècle (The Hague, 1918), 58.

  53. 53.

    Gaubius to Albrecht von Haller, 23 March 1743 in Sophia W. Hamers-van Duynen, Hieronymus David Gaubius (1705–1780): Zijn correspondentie met Antonio Nunes Ribeiro Sanches en andere tijdgenoten (Assen and Amsterdam, 1978), 181–3.

  54. 54.

    Gaubius to António Sanches, 9 March 1748. Ibid., 95–7.

  55. 55.

    Gaubius to Sanches, 23 September 1761. Ibid., 123–5.

  56. 56.

    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), 225–50.

  57. 57.

    Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, 141–9.

  58. 58.

    Ibid., 200–9.

  59. 59.

    Ibid., 176–80.

  60. 60.

    Hasok Chang, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (Oxford, 2004).

  61. 61.

    John C. Powers, ‘Measuring Fire: Herman Boerhaave and the Introduction of Thermometry into Chemistry’, Osiris, 29 (2014), 158–77.

  62. 62.

    ‘Musei Gaubiani pars sive Catalogus partis supellectilis, qua usus est vir celeberrimus H. D. Gaubius’ (Leiden, 1783), 31. Besides Fahrenheit, these scales of temperature were named after Evert Jacob van Wachendorff (1703–1758), professor of medicine, botany and chemistry at Utrecht University, and French naturalist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683–1757).

  63. 63.

    ‘Praelectiones publicae chemicae’, vol. 1, pp. 38, 39, 101, 102, etc.

  64. 64.

    Gaubius, Institutiones, 157; idem, Institutions, 104.

  65. 65.

    Schwencke, Haematologia, xi; idem, Verhandeling van het bloed, xix.

  66. 66.

    Ibid., 49.

  67. 67.

    Ibid., xix–xx.

  68. 68.

    Boersma, Antonius de Haen, 78–85. Antonius de Haen, Ratio medendi in nosocomio practico (Vienna, 1756–1773).

  69. 69.

    Tore Frängsmyr, John L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider, eds., The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century (Berkeley, 1990).

  70. 70.

    Schwencke, Verhandeling van het bloed, 246–7.

  71. 71.

    Schwencke, Haematologia, 153; idem, Verhandeling van het bloed, 252.

  72. 72.

    Von Haller, Academical Lectures, vol. 2, 167–8. In the original, Von Haller made a distinction between those particles brought about by natural body heat, and those particles made by the intensity of fire. Praelectiones, vol. 2, 312.

  73. 73.

    Although ascribed to Bordeu, it appeared as Louis de Lacaze, Idée de l’homme physique et moral, pour servir d’introduction à un traité de médecine (Paris, 1755); Elizabeth A. Williams, A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier (Aldershot, 2003); Anne C. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore, 1998).

  74. 74.

    Lacaze, Idée de l’homme, 9–10.

  75. 75.

    Théophile de Bordeu, Recherches sur le pouls, par rapport aux crises (Paris, 1756); idem, Inquiries Concerning the Varieties of the Pulse: And the Particular Crisis Each More Especially Indicates (London, 1764); Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology, 59.

  76. 76.

    Boerhaave, A New Method, vol. 2, 211–2.

  77. 77.

    Lacaze, Idée de l’homme, 44.

  78. 78.

    Lelland J. Rather, Mind and Body in Eighteenth-Century Medicine: A Study Based on Jerome Gaub’s De regimine mentis (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965), 59–65.

  79. 79.

    ‘Praelectiones publicae chemicae’, vol. 2, p. 273.

  80. 80.

    Julien Offray de La Mettrie, L’homme machine (Leiden, 1748), 93, 12. The body as clock and as machine has been a much studied metaphor. See for example Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago, 2015).

  81. 81.

    Charles T. Wolfe, Materialism: A Historico-Philosophical Introduction (Dordrecht, 2016), 10, 52–3; Thomson, Bodies of Thought, 180–9.

  82. 82.

    Hieronymus David Gaubius, Oratio de vana vitae longae, a chemicis promissae, exspectatione (Leiden, 1734), 12.

  83. 83.

    Hieronymus David Gaubius, Sermo academicus de regimine mentis quod medicorum est (Leiden, 1763), 2; Rather, Mind and Body, 115.

  84. 84.

    Gaubius to Paulus de Wind, 9 August 1758 in Hamers-van Duynen, Hieronymus David Gaubius, 216.

  85. 85.

    Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck, eds., Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago, 2011).

  86. 86.

    Cf. Ursula Klein, ‘Shifting Ontologies, Changing Classifications: Plant Materials from 1700 to 1830’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 36 (2005), 261–329, here 266–7.

  87. 87.

    Wolfe, Materialism.

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Verwaal, R.E. (2020). The Nature of Blood. In: Bodily Fluids, Chemistry and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Boerhaave School. Palgrave Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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