Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Van Helmont, Jan Baptiste

Born: Before 12 January 1579, Brussels
Died: 30 December 1644, Brussels
  • Sietske FransenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1108-1


The Flemish physician Jan Baptiste Van Helmont is one of the most important followers of Paracelsus. Van Helmont had a major influence on the iatrochemical movement in early modern Europe. His most important book Ortus medicinae was published posthumously and sets out his medical, philosophical, and religious worldviews. He is famous for inventing the concept and word gas.


Jan Baptiste was born as the youngest son in a Catholic noble family in current-day Belgium. His youth was overshadowed by the early death of his father and the onset of the of the 80-year war. Against the will of his mother, he pursued his studies in medicine at the University of Leuven. He finished his university education officially in 1599 but did not accept his degree until 10 years later. This was because he felt compelled to compensate for what he saw as the shortcomings of the university education by travelling through Europe and reading all books he himself thought were necessary for obtaining a medical degree. By the time he took his degree in 1609, he had married Margarita van Ranst and moved to Vilvoorde where he practiced medicine and set up his own laboratory. Five of his six children were born here before he moved the family back to Brussels. His fifth child and youngest son Franciscus Mercurius (1614–1698) became his most important ambassador after his death on 30 December 1644.

Van Helmont published several treatises between 1621 and 1624, most famously the De magnetica vulnerum curatione [On the magnetic cure of wounds] (Paris 1621) in which he described the natural cause of the weapon salve based on magnetism. This treatise gave rise to allegation of heresy and became a source of major problems for the rest of his life. Led by the Jesuit Jean Roberti, a group of theologians, mainly from the University of Leuven, judged Van Helmont’s work to be anathema to church doctrine. Van Helmont appeared three times for the archiepiscopal court in Mechelen. During this period he was not able to publish and lived several years under house arrest. However, several of his autographs that were confiscated by the ecclesiastical court can still be found in their archives in Mechelen. In 1642 he published the first of four influential treatises, on fevers, the stone, the plague, and the four Galenic humors. The set of four was published in 1644 as Opuscula medicina inaudita [Small medical works, previously unheard off]. They were reprinted as part of his largest work, the Ortus medicinae [The Rise of Medicine] (Amsterdam 1648), posthumously published by Van Helmont’s son. Another 11 years later, Van Helmont’s Dutch work Dageraad was published. The story goes that Van Helmont had given this Dutch work to one of his daughters during his life. A friend subsequently discovered the manuscript and immediately brought the manuscript to the printer.

Van Helmont is in current historical studies especially known as an alchemical author and follower of the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493–1541). In his own laboratory, he experimented with alchemical and medical recipes, procedures, and methods. He described these in his writings which all bear medical titles yet contain diverse material touching upon other fields. These works expound not only upon medical ideas based on Hippocrates as well as Paracelsus but also develop a full philosophy of the world, human beings, the soul, and the body. In accordance with Neoplatonic ideas, he placed the faculty of “intellect” as the image of God at the pinnacle of human nature, whereas “reason” in Van Helmont’s philosophy has no such status. Van Helmont’s rejection of scholastic medicine complements arguments against Aristotelianism and the use of mathematics for complex processes throughout his works, together with suggested reforms in education and methods for acquiring new knowledge, namely, by experiment and experience. His methods of quantification of his experiments have been important for later developments in chemistry and science in general. The many new concepts and ideas discovered and invented by Van Helmont were given new names by him, in both Latin and his native tongue Dutch, with the most famous surviving term being “gas.”



Primary Literature

  1. Helmont, Jan Baptiste van. 1683. Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst. Trans. C. Knorr von Rosenroth. Sulzbach: Johann Andreae Endters Sel. Söhne.Google Scholar
  2. Letter from Van Helmont to Pierre Gassendi. 1658. In Opera omnia, ed. Pierre Gassendi. 6 vols. Lyon: Laurentius Annison and Joannes Baptista Devenet. vol VI, 19–24.Google Scholar
  3. Letters between Van Helmont and Marin Mersenne. 1932–1946. In Correspondence du P. Marin Mersenne, ed. P. Tannery and C. de Waard. Vols. I–III. Paris: PUF.Google Scholar
  4. Van Helmont Archives, Archiepiscopal Archives Mechelen.Google Scholar
  5. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1607. Eisagoge in artem medica, a Paracelso restitutam. In Corneille Broeckx. 1853. Le Premier Ouvrage de J. B. Van Helmont. Annales de l’Académie Archéologique Belgique 10 and 11: 327–392 and 119–191.Google Scholar
  6. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1621. Disputatio de magnetica vulnerum naturali et legitima curatione, contra R.P. Joannem Roberti. Paris: Victor Leroy.Google Scholar
  7. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1624. Supplementum de Spandanis fontibus. Liège: Strael.Google Scholar
  8. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1642. Febrium doctrina inaudita. Antwerp: Joan. Cnobbari.Google Scholar
  9. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1644. Opuscula medica inaudita. I. De lithiasi; II. De febribus; III. De humoribus Galeni; IV. De peste. Cologne: Jodocus Kalcoven.Google Scholar
  10. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1648. Ortus medicinae. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  11. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1659. Dageraad, oft nieuwe opkomst der Geneeskonst. Amsterdam: Jan Jacob Schipper.Google Scholar
  12. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1662. Oriatrike or, Physick Refined. Trans. J. Chandler. London: Lodowick Loyd.Google Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Clericuzio, Antonio. 1993. From van Helmont to Boyle: A study of the transmission of Helmontian chemical and medical theories in seventeenth-century England. The British Journal of the History of Science 26: 303–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Debus, Allen G. 1977. The chemical philosophy: Paracelsian science and medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. New York: Science History Publications.Google Scholar
  3. Fransen, Sietske. 2013. Daniel Foote als Übersetzer im Kontext von Vater und Sohn Van Helmont. Morgen-Glantz 23: 169–184.Google Scholar
  4. Giglioni, Guido. 2000. Immaginazione e malattia: Saggio su Jan Baptiste van Helmont. Milano: FrancoAngeli.Google Scholar
  5. Halleux, Robert. 1983. Helmontiana. Academiae Analecta, Klasse der Wetenschappen 45-III, 33–63.Google Scholar
  6. Halleux, Robert. 1988. Theory and experiment in the early writings of Johan Baptist van Helmont. In Theory and experiment, ed. Diderik Batens and Jean Paul van Bendegem, 93–101. Dordrecht: Reidel.  https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-009-2875-6_6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hallleux, Robert. 1987. Helmontiana II: le prologue de l’Eisagoge, la conversion de Van Helmont au paracelsisme et les Songes de Descartes. Academiae Analecta, Klasse der Wetenschappen 49-II, 17–36.Google Scholar
  8. Harline, Craig. 2003. Miracles at the Jesus oak: Histories of the supernatural in reformation Europe. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  9. Hedesan, Georgiana D. 2016. An alchemical quest for universal knowledge: The “Christian Philosophy” of Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579–1644). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. Hirai, Hiro. 2005. Le concept de semence dans les theories de la matière à la Renaissance. Turnhout: Brepols. Ch. 17.Google Scholar
  11. Newman, William Royall, and Lawrence M. Principe. 2002. Alchemy tried in the fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Pagel, Walter. 1982. Joan Baptista van Helmont: Reformer of science and medicine. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Van de Velde, A.J.J. 1943. Geboorte en overlijden van J. B. van Helmont. Jaarboek – Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren en schone kunsten, 131–136.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Hiro Hirai
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for the History of Philosophy and ScienceRadboud Universiteit NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands