Vital Matters: Quicksilver Doctors

(Groningen University, 2012-2016, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia and Wellcome Library, London, 2017)

In this project, which was part of the larger NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) research project Vital Matters, directed by Rina Knoeff, I investigated the changing role of chemistry in general and of metals in particular in eighteenth-century Dutch medicine. This resulted in four peer-reviewed publications, three of which are forthcoming, as I needed to consult a number of unique sources which were only available at the Beckman Library at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, and at the Wellcome Trust in London. I finished this project there on two short-term fellowships in the spring of 2017.

In 2014, my paper on the use of mercury as an injection mass in anatomical experiments and preparations in the long eighteenth century appeared in the Journal for the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. This application of mercury was common throughout Europe, and refined mercury-injected preparations as well as plates of anatomical mercury remain today. The use and meaning of mercury in related disciplines such as medicine and chemistry in the same period have been studied, but our knowledge of anatomical mercury is sparse and tends to focus on technicalities. This article argues that mercury had a distinct meaning in anatomy, which was initially influenced by alchemical and classical understandings of mercury. Moreover, it demonstrates that the choice of mercury as an anatomical injection mass was deliberate and informed by an intricate cultural understanding of its materiality, and that its use in anatomical preparations and its perception as an anatomical material evolved with the understanding of the circulatory and lymphatic systems. By using the material culture of anatomical mercury as a starting point, I sought to provide a new, object-driven interpretation of complex and strongly interrelated historiographical categories such as mechanism, vitalism, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology, which are difficult to understand through a historiography that focuses exclusively on ideas.

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