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Van Helmont

Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery

JOHANN BAPTIST VAN HELMONT, a celebrated Belgian physician, scholar and

visionary, of noble family, was born at Brussels in 1577. At an early

age he began the study of medicine, and was appointed Professor of

Surgery at the University of Louvain. Becoming, however, infected with

the delusions of alchemy, and being possessed of an ardent imagination,

he inclined naturally to the study of occult science, and was infatuated

> with the idea of discovering a universal remedy. He was, moreover, a

follower of the eminent theologian, Johann Tauler (1290-1361), founder

of mystic theology in Germany. Van Helmont has been described as an

enthusiastic and fantastic, though upright friend of the truth. He

adhered to the theosophic and alchemistic doctrines of a somewhat

earlier epoch, and was an admirer of the dogmatic pseudo-philosophy of


The German writer, Johann Christian Ferdinand Hoefer (1811-1878), said

that Van Helmont was much superior to Paracelsus, whom he took as his

model. He had the permanent distinction of revealing scientifically the

existence of invisible, impalpable substances, namely gases. And he was

the first to employ the word gas as the name of all elastic fluids

except common air. Van Helmont graduated as Doctor of Medicine in

1599, and after several years of study at different European

universities, he returned home and married Margaret van Ranst, a noble

lady of Brabant. He then settled down on his estate at Vilvoorden, near

Brussels, where he remained until his death in 1644.

Johann Hermann Baas, in his "History of Medicine," characterizes him as

a fertile genius in the department of chemistry, but denies that he was

a great and independent spirit, outrunning his age, or impressing upon

it the stamp of his own individuality. Van Helmont, like many another

irregular practitioner, achieved fame by some remarkable cures. It was

said of him that his patients never languished long under his care,

being always killed or cured within two or three days. He was frequently

called to attend those who had been given up by other physicians. And to

the latters' chagrin, such patients were often unexpectedly restored to


A lover of the marvellous, and credulous to the point of superstition,

Van Helmont became infatuated with erroneous doctrines. His

contemporaries, dazzled, it may be, by the brilliancy of his mental

powers, regarded him as an erratic genius, but not as a charlatan.

The term spiritual vitalism has been applied to the philosophy of Van

Helmont. He maintained that the primary cause of all organization was

Archaeus (Gr. +archaios+, primitive), a term said to have been

invented by Basil Valentine, the German alchemist (born 1410).

This has been defined as a spirit, or invisible man or animal, of

ethereal substance, the counterpart of the visible body, within which it

resides, and to which it imparts life, strength, and the power of

assimilating food. Archaeus was regarded as the creative

spirit, which, working upon the raw material of water or fluidity, by

means of a ferment promotes the various actions which result in the

development and nutrition of the physical organism. As life and all

vital action depended upon archaeus, any disturbance of this spirit

was regarded as the probable cause of fevers and other morbid