A 17th-Century Hippocratic Revival

The great Flemish iatrochemist, Joan Baptista van Helmont (1577–1644), was well aware that Hippocrates

wrote onely a few things, and all things almost which are born about, are supposed to be his. And therefore I wish that posterity had directed the sharpnesses of their Wits, according to the mind of that Old Man; Peradventure, through Gods permission, they had extracted the understanding of the Causes of Diseases: But they afterwards so subscribed unto the Authority of one Galen, that they, as it were slept themselves into a drousie Evil, being afrightned while they are awakened by me. But in the Title of Causes, I understand, in the very inward or pithy integrity of Diseases, the matter being instructed by its own proper efficient Cause, to be indeed the inward, immediate Cause, and to arise from a vital Beginning.

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined. The Common Errors therein Refuted, and the Whole Art Reformed & Rectified: Being a New Rise and Progress of Phylosophy and Medicine for the Destruction of Diseases and Prolongation of Life, trans. by John Chandler, 1662, 530)

Van Helmont thus followed Hippocrates in believing that diseases “flow from the root of Life it self”: “Good doth bring forth Evil by accident, and doth oft-times proceed from our own vital powers” (van Helmont, “A Treatise of Diseases,” in Oriatrike, or, Physick Refined, 1662, 530).

This held true for cancer, too, which van Helmont found to “proceed from an internal Beginning” (Oriatrike, 1080), thus assigning its cure to the physician, rather than to the surgeon.

17th-century etched portraits of J. B. and F. M. van Helmont

^ Detail from Portretten van Joannes Baptista van Helmont en Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont met acht wapens [Portraits of Joannes Baptista and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont with Eight Arms]. Etching (179mm × 138mm) by Cornelis de Man, created 1648.

A heraldic representation, wherein the heads of the writer, alchemist and physician, Joan Baptista van Helmont (1577–1644), and his son, the medic, chemist and Christian cabbalist Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614–1698), are surrounded by eight armorial bearings. Each man’s head is placed on a geometric shape (the father, on a triangle, the son, a circle), inscribed with their names.
   The print was first used in Francis Mercury van Helmont’s edition of his father’s Ortus Medicinæ. Id est, Initia Physicæ Inaudita (Amsterdam: Lowiis Elzevier, 1648), and reprinted in John Chandler’s Eng. trans., Oriatrike or, Physick Refined (London: Printed for Lodowick Loyd, and are to be sold at his shop next the Castle in Cornhill, 1662).
   Click/tap here to view the whole print at the Rijks Museum website.

In van Helmont’s day, Hippocrates was most celebrated for having “cured the Plague among the people throughout Greece” (Oriatrike, 1082) using some secret combination of “Sulphur, Salt, and Pitch” originating with the gods:

A certain man being familiar with a happy Angel his keeper, intreated him, that he would beg of God, the remedy whereby Hippocrates cured the popular plague of the Grecians; hoping that it would not be denyed unto the miserable Christians, the which the Almighty in times past granted to the Heathens: The good Angel said, Hipocrates, used Sulphur, Salt, and Pitch: which answer left behind it the former obscurities: Hence it came to passe, that that man afterwards said, there was enough spoken for these times. Wherefore after a careful diligent search, at length I resolved with my self that Sulphur in the age of Hyppocrates was called Phlogiston, that is, inflameable ... because it was wholly consumed by the fire. But because Hippocrates named the hidden poyson of any diseases whatsoever, a divine thing ... even unto this day, Sulphur is no otherwise written or named, than with the name of Divine; because it heals the Pest: The which, as it was antiently believed to be sent onely from the Gods, so also it was antiently supposed to contain a divine succour in it.

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1154)

For proof of the efficaciousness of Hippocrates’ lost cures, van Helmont relates the story of how Artaxerxes II of Persia, desperate to rid his empire of the contagion decimating the citizenry and military, attempted to lure Hippocrates to Persia with an offer of as much “Gold, Silver, and whatsoever thou wilt have to be given unto thee; that thou shouldst be made equall unto the Nobles of Persia” (Oriatrike, 1082). As the Persians were then the enemies of the Greeks, Hippocrates (and also the citizens of Cos, even when threatened with retribution by Artaxerxes) refused to help, with Hippocrates replying “That we enjoy food, rayment, house, and all sufficient wealth for life: But that it is not lawfull for me to make use of the riches of the Persians; neither to free Barbarians from diseases, that are enemies to the Greeks. Farewel.” (Oriatrike, 1082) And in a private letter to Demetrius, from which van Helmont quotes approvingly, Hippocrates gave another reason for his refusal: “The King of the Persians hath sent for me; as not knowing that with me, there is a greater respect of wisdome, than of Gold.” (Oriatrike, 1082)

late-18th-century painting

^ Hippocrate Refusant les Présents d’Artaxercès [Hippocrates Refusing the Gifts of Artaxerxes]. By the French painter, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824). Oil painting on canvas (134 x 98 cm), created 1792.

In his romantic re-telling of the story, Anne-Louis Girodet depicts Hippocrates pushing away a pile of gold coin, with a sandaled foot. “There is no authenticated original representation of Hippocrates. This image conveys the features classically attributed to Greek sages: maturity, high forehead, baldness and beard.” (Roy Porter, Bodies Politic: Disease, Death, and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900, 129)
   Click/tap here to view a larger digital facsimile of Girodet’s history painting.

Van Helmont, whose practice catered mostly to the poor and who claimed “to cure some ten thousands of sick persons every year, by my remedies,” sought to revive Hippocrates’ legendary treatment for plague. His own observation taught him that “the Sulphur of Italy is better than our Country Sulphur bred at Leydon” (Oriatrike, 1154), and that any sulphurous compound worked better than the “myrrhe being by degrees melted under the tongue” pushed by Paracelsus or the “Barley broaths, pulses, syrupes, and Juleps ... perfumes of spices, feathers, or shooes” then prescribed by physicians and surgeons to defend against and ward off plague. (Oriatrike, 1158) Thus, van Helmont describes having

seen in the watery tract of Gaunt, a whole legion of Neopolitans to have died of the plague, but there was in the same place a Company of Germans which tinged their shirts with [sulphurous] Gun-powder, that they might excuse their Laundresses, and also the lice: If any of these perished, it was by reason of the bloudy Flux, but not of the plague ....

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1154)

In his chapter, “Hippocrates Revived,” van Helmont gives a detailed account of what he’d been able to glean about Hippocrates’ approach to the Greek contagion, including that “Hippocrates had not one only remedy against the Pest” (Oriatrike, 1156). In the process, we learn how “It came to pass afterwards, that Greece be sprinkled their grapes, divers times, with the Brine of the Sea, before they were carried to the Press: For Hippocrates perswaded that thing, that so, together with it, Insects might be driven from the grapes: Hence it is, that the Wines of Greece are salted even unto this day, the reason of this use being unknown.” (Oriatrike, 1156) Among other things he discovered about Hippocrates’ practice, van Helmont reports that

Unto great Buboes in the groyn, and marks, he applyed hot Towels tinged in rich wine, wherein, as I have said, he had boiled Sulphur. Furthermore, he reserved a secret to himself, through the sight whereof, he attained to himself, divine honours: But it was the flesh of a Viper, [or] Snake, which he cleansed: for the utmost part of the tail, and the head, being cut off, he stript off their skin, casting away the bowels, together with the gawl, he reserved only the Heart, and Liver; but he drew out all their blood, with the vein running down the back-bone: But he boiled not their flesh after the manner wherein it is put into Triacle [the medicinal compound, treacle]; but he exactly bruised the same, together with the bones, and aforesaid bowels, and dryed them in a warm Oven, until they could be powdered; which powder he sprinkled on hony being sufficiently clarified and boiled, until he knew that fleshes in boiling, had laid aside their virtue as well in the broath, as in the vapours: But he added unto this Electuary, the Spice of his Country for to cloak the secret; and therefore, neither was it made manifest by the Angel [who first enigmatically told the Christians that the Hippocratic cure for plague “used Sulphur, Salt, and Pitch”].

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1156)

And here van Helmont can’t help but again introduce a Christian overlay onto Hippocratic clinical practice:

But the cure [involving the flesh of the viper] contains a mystery; that as Death crept in by the Serpent, it self also, ought to be vindicated by the death of the Serpent: For Adam being skilful in the properties of all Beasts, was not ignorant also, that the Serpent was more crafty than the other living Creatures; and that the aforesaid balsam, the remedy of death, lay hid in the Serpent: Wherefore the Spirit of Darkness could not more safely deceive our first parents, than under the Serpents skin: For perhaps they hoped that they should escape the death sorely threatned by God, by the aid of the Serpent.

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1156)

As for the third part (pitch) of the legendary Hippocratic cure,

Hippocrates used also wine that was pitched: Wherefore it is worthy our consideration, that Spain is seldom afflicted with the plague; ... because ... Spain useth wine, and indeed that which is pitcht, because, seeing for the most part, they want Hogsheads, they keep their wines in pitched Hides or Leathern Jacks: Italy hath wooden vessels; therefore it doth not, as constrained, make use of pitch, and it is more frequently, violently taken with the Pest ....

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1156)

Van Helmont accepted received wisdom describing Hippocrates as a divine man,

the ninth indeed from King Chrysamides, but the eighteenth from Æsculapius; but the twentieth from Jupiter: Being indeed of his mother Praxithia, of the family of the Heraclides: Wherefore, from both seedes, he hath his original from the Gods: He was initiated or entered as a young beginner in medicinal affairs by his great grandfathers, so far as it is to be believed, that these knew: But himself hath taught himself, having made use of a divine nature, the whole art: And in the industry of his minde, he hath as far exceeded his progenitours, as he hath also exceeded them in the excellency of art ....

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1080)

As such, van Helmont attributed “the remedy whereby Hippocrates cured the popular plague of the Grecians” to his divine ancestry and to the plague’s initial weakness when it first appeared in Classical Greece:

For indeed, that disease being as yet an Embryo, scarce known, scarce named, was now [i.e., 5th–4th century BCE] perfectly cured: but now [i.e., the 17th century], it being sufficiently and too well known, is left unto deceivers of the lowest condition: Charity hath grown cold; therefore the light of knowledge, and understanding hath been snatched away from us, and the certainty of curing hath beem buried with Hippocrates. Although a great volume be born about in his name: yet he suppressed this safety or assurance of curing (God so permitting it) for fear of the Barbarians [i.e., the Persians], or from a zeal of vanity to be observed, because he arose from the stock of Deasters or Starry Gods: or because through the successive interchange of days, his own monuments perished, suppositional ones being left: However it is, by the permission of God, the aforesaid amplenesse of knowledge, and safety of curing the Plague hath hitherto vanished.

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1082–3)

In such manner was the Hippocratic legend born, and the Hippocratic truth lost. Van Helmont recounts ancient lore that Hippocrates

was sacrificed unto by the Athenians, as it were unto a protecting starry God. When as therefore, the Greeks saw Hipocrates to use a remedy known only to himself, unto whom therefore they attributed their life, health, and whole preservation; they by degrees despairing, the use of salt, and sulphur went more and more into oblivion, especially if some years that were free from the plague, interposed: And afterwards, every Physitian began to select divers medicines, hoping that his own was the Antidote of Hippocrates: From whence there was afterwards a standing crop of remedies collected, without numbers, for the most part, with empty ears. At length, from a slender senting of the praise of the Viper, the composition of Triacle [treacle] arose, it being partly loaded with a confounding of simples, and their odours being partly dispersed in time of preparation, and they cast away the better properties of the Viper in the broaths. ... [T]herefore by reason of the ignorance of the causes of the Pest, any one hath devised many remedies; and also, hath connexed many things unharmoniously together, against the poyson forreignly entring: Indeed, all of them confused, without a method, experience, reason, and knowledge of the causes: And nothing having been at all devised against the Pest arisen from the foolish image of terrour, and the perswasion of fearfulness, afterwards, from the age of Hipocrates, every Physitian began at pleasure to select divers remedies, and to connex many things together, and much more than many, hoping that his own invention was that of Hippocrates.
     In the mean time, the number of compositions increased, and by degrees, uncertainty supplanted the antient truth ....

(J. B. van Helmont, Oriatrike, or, Physick Refined, trans. 1662, 1156–7)