Mercury or mercury?

In previous posts, I have written about the historical omnipresence of mercury in medicine. For my new research project, I am trying to figure out how the first academic chemists looked at mercury, and whether the experiments they did with it changed the way mercury was used in drugs. In the early eighteenth century, the chemical laboratory was slowly but steadily integrated in university research and teaching. Taking its materials and procedures mostly from traditional alchemy, the early academic chemists tried to distance themselves and their new practice from the negative associations alchemy also included, like quackery and gold making.


Herman Boerhaave

The academic chemists wanted to combine laboratory practice and philosophy to gain an better understanding of the composition and characteristics of all kinds of materials, and hoped this would also enable them to improve the effectiveness of medical remedies. For example, the famous Leiden professor of botany, medicine and chemistry Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) spend a substantial part of the last decade of his live experimenting with mercury. He wondered whether purified mercury was the primal matter that could serve as a universal remedy.

Not very surprising, because the actual substance of mercury was thought to have the same qualities as the god Mercury and philosophical mercury, an alchemical concept which was not necessarily the same as the actual material. I know, this sounds vague, and it is – part of my research project is trying to find out whether the early academic chemists actually distinguished between philosophical and material mercury, or that they saw them as interchangeable entities with the same qualities. This multiplicity of mercury is nicely demonstrated in John Woodall’s 1617 The Ships’ Surgeons’ Mate, a handbook for young ships’ surgeons’ with little training on how to dress wounds, use chirurgical instruments and prepare medication.


‘Mercury,’ from John Woodall, The Ships’ Surgeons’ Mate, 1617.

Apart from these practical instructions, the book also contains two six-page poems, one on the virtues of mercury, and one on those of sulfur – traditionally thought to be the hot, red, dry natural opposite of cool, silvery white, wet mercury. The image of the god mercury shown here precedes the poem on the virtues of mercury, and bears a short caption on the character of Mercury, or mercury:

My shape and habit strange you see,

my actions best can witnesse me;

About the world I take my way,

 with Sol in circuit once a day.


From earth to skie with oft returnes,

from substance to a blast;

From good to bad and good againe,

hence winged, I fly in haste.


In this text, we see that a number of characteristics of the substance / planet / god are effortlessly combined: the strange shape and habits of the metal that can change from a substance to a vapour, a ‘blast;’ the planet that orbits the sun and is thus circled by earth once a day, and the winged, hastily flying messenger god. Also, it mentions that mercury has a good and a bad side, something that is also stressed in the last verse of the poem on sulfur: “Though Sulphur, Sal and Mercurie, have healing medicines store, yet know the’ have poison and can kill, prepare them well therefore.” To be continued!


About mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science, art, and ideas, with a particular interest in material culture, art and knowledge theory, the history of sensory perception, and digital humanities research methods. I currently work at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012 and have held fellowships at institutions such as the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections, medicine chests and anatomical preparation and modelling methods to the production of coloured glass, the transformation of alchemy in the Netherlands, and the emergence of the concept ‘technique’ in art theory. If you would like to contact me, please send an email to or use the contact form below. I am happy to answer questions regarding my research and publications or early modern history of art, science and medicine more generally, and to engage in public outreach activities.
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2 Responses to Mercury or mercury?

  1. Pingback: On Giants Shoulders #54: A Sleigh Load of History « Contagions

  2. Pingback: Mercurial drops | The Medicine Chest

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