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Herman Boerhaave
by Samuel Johnson

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First printed in the January, February, March, and April (1739) issues of The Gentleman's Magazine. The edition used here is from The Works of Samuel Johnson, as printed by Pafraets Company (Troy, NY, 1903), volume 14, pages 154-184. Section titles do not appear in the original; they were created and inserted by Frank Lynch.

This page was posted after reading Richard B. Schwartz' book "Samuel Johnson and the New Science," which argued, rather convincingly, that Johnson's biography of Boerhaave was central to understanding Johnson's attitudes towards progress and careful experimentation.

  • Birth, parents, early life, and the death of his mother
  • Early education, and the death of his father
  • University life; exposure to early church writings
  • An interest in medical studies
  • Method of his medical studies
  • He expands beyond medical studies into related fields
  • Scandal prevents him from pursuing a religious career
  • A full turn to medicine
  • Lecturer in Physick at University of Leiden
  • Promotion to Professor of Physick and Botany at University of Leyden
  • A lecture on experimental philosophy; backlash and support
  • International recognition
  • Serious illness in 1722 interrupts his efforts
  • Further illnesses force him to slow down; an argument against intellectual arrogance
  • An appreciation to careful diligence over empty theorizing
  • 1737: Onset of his final illness, and death (September 23, 1738)
  • An appreciation of his character
  • Boerhaave's religious thinking
  • His family
  • His published works

    Birth, parents, early life, and the death of his mother

    The following account of the late Dr. Boerhaave, so loudly celebrated, and so universally lamented through the whole learned world, will, we hope, be not unacceptable to our readers; we could have made it much larger, by adopting flying reports, and inserting unattested facts: a close adherence to certainty has contracted our narrative, and hindered it from swelling that bulk, at which modern histories generally arrive.

    Dr. Herman Boerhaave was born on the last day of December, 1668, about one in the morning, at Voorhout, a village two miles distant from Leyden; his father, James Boerhaave, was minister of Voorhout, of whom his son, in a small account of his own life, has given a very amiable character, for the simplicity and openness of his behaviour, for his exact frugality in the management of a narrow fortune, and the prudence, tenderness, and diligence with which he educated a numerous family of nine children: he was eminently skilled in history and genealogy, and versed in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages.

    His mother was Hagar Daelder, a tradesman's daughter of Amsterdam, from whom he might, perhaps, derive an hereditary inclination to the study of physick, in which she was very inquisitive, and had obtained a knowledge of it, not common in female students.

    This knowledge, however, she did not live to communicate to her son; for she died, in 1678, ten years after her marriage.

    His father, finding himself encumbered with the care of seven children, thought it necessary to take a second wife, and in July, 1674, was married to Eve du Bois, daughter of a minster of Leyden, who, by her prudent and impartial conduct, so endeared herself to her husband's children, that they all regarded her as their own mother.

    Early education, and the death of his father

    Herman Boerhaave was always designed, by his father, for the ministry, and, with that view, instructed by him in grammatical learning, and the first elements of languages; in which he made such a proficiency, that he was, at the age of eleven years, not only master of the rules of grammar, but capable of translating with tolerable accuracy, and not wholly ignorant of critical niceties.

    At intervals, to recreate his mind and strengthen his constitution, it was his father's custom to send him into the fields, and employ him in agriculture, and such kind of rural occupations, which he continued, through all his life, to love and practise; and, by this vicissitude of study and exercise, preserved himself, in great measure, from those distempers and depressions, which are frequently the consequences of indiscreet diligence and uninterrupted application; and from which students, not well acquainted with the constitution of the human body, sometimes fly for relief, to wine instead of exercise, and purchase temporary ease, by the hazard of the most dreadful consequences.

    The studies of young Boerhaave were, about this time, interrupted by an accident, which deserves a particular mention, as it first inclined him to that science, to which he was, by nature, so well adapted, and which he afterwards carried to so great perfection.

    In the twelfth year of his age, a stubborn, painful, and malignant ulcer, broke out upon his left thigh; which, for near five years, defeated all the art of the surgeons and physicians, and not only afflicted him with most excruciating pains, but exposed him to such sharp and tormenting applications, that the disease and remedies were equally insufferable. Then it was, that his own pain taught him to compassionate others, and his experience of the inefficacy of the methods then in use, incited him to attempt the discovery of others more certain.

    He began to practise, at least, honestly, for he began upon himself; and his first essay was a prelude to his future success, for having laid aside all the prescriptions of his physicians, and all the applications of his surgeons, he at last, by tormenting the part with salt and urine, effected a cure.

    That he might, on this occasion, obtain the assistance of surgeons with less inconvenience and expense, he was brought, by his father, at fourteen, to Leyden, and placed in the fourth class of the publick school, after being examined by the master; here his application and abilities were equally conspicuous. In six months, by gaining the first prize in the fourth class, he was raised to the fifth; and, in six months more, upon the same proof of the superiority of his genius, rewarded with another prize, and translated to the sixth; from whence it is usual, in six months more, to be removed to the university.

    Thus did our young student advance in learning and reputation, when, as he was within view of the university, a sudden and unexpected blow threatened to defeat all his expectations.

    On the 12th of November, in 1682, his father died, and left behind him a very slender provision for his widow, and nine children, of which the eldest was not yet seventeen years old.

    This was a most afflicting loss to the young scholar, whose fortune was by no means sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned education, and who, therefore, seemed to be now summoned, by necessity, to some way of life more immediately and certainly lucrative; but, with a resolution equal to his abilities, and a spirit not so depressed and shaken, he determined to break through the obstacles of poverty, and supply, by diligence, the want of fortune.

    He, therefore, asked, and obtained the consent of his guardians, to prosecute his studies, so long as his patrimony would support him; and, continuing his wonted industry, gained another prize.

    He was now to quit the school for the university, but on account of the weakness yet remaining in his thigh, was, at his own entreaty, continued six months longer under the care of his master, the learned Winschotan, where he was once more honoured with the prize.

    University life; exposure to early church writings

    At his removal to the university, the same genius and industry met with the same encouragement and applause. The learned Triglandius, one of his father's friends, made soon after professor of divinity at Leyden, distinguished him in a particular manner, and recommended him to the friendship of Mr. Van Apphen, in whom he found a generous and constant patron.

    He became now a diligent hearer of the most celebrated professors, and made great advances in all the sciences, still regulating his studies with a view, principally, to divinity, for which he was originally intended by his father; and, for that reason, exerted his utmost application to attain an exact knowledge of the Hebrew tongue.

    Being convinced of the necessity of mathematical learning, he began to study those sciences in 1687, but without that intense industry with which the pleasure he found in that kind of knowledge, induced him afterwards to cultivate them.

    In 1690, having performed the exercises of the university with uncommon reputation, he took his degree in philosophy; and, on that occasion, discussed the important and arduous subject of the distinct natures of the soul and body, with such accuracy, perspicuity, and subtilty, that he entirely confuted all the sophistry of Epicurus, Hobbes, and Spinosa, and equally raised the characters of his piety and erudition.

    Divinity was still his great employment, and the chief aim of all his studies. He read the scriptures in their original languages; and when difficulties occurred, consulted the interpretations of the most ancient fathers, whom he read in order of time, beginning with Clemens Romanus.

    In the perusal of those early writers, he was struck with the profoundest veneration of the simplicity and purity of their doctrines, the holiness of their lives, and the sanctity of the discipline practised by them; but, as he descended to the lower ages, found the peace of christianity broken by useless controversies, and its doctrines sophisticated by the subtilties of the schools; he found the holy writers interpreted according to the notions of philosophers, and the chimeras of metaphysicians adopted as articles of faith; he found difficulties raised by niceties, and fomented to bitterness and rancour; he saw the simplicity of the christian doctrine corrupted by the private fancies of particular parties, while each adhered to its own philosophy, and orthodoxy was confined to the sect in power.

    An interest in medical studies

    Having now exhausted his fortune in the pursuit of his studies, he found the necessity of applying to some profession, that, without engrossing all his time, might enable him to support himself; and having obtained a very uncommon knowledge of the mathematicks, he read lectures in those sciences to a select number of young gentlemen in the university.

    At length, his propension to the study of physick grew too violent to be resisted; and, though he still intended to make divinity the great employment of his life, he could not deny himself the satisfaction of spending some time upon the medical writers, for the perusal of which he was so well qualified by his acquaintance with the mathematicks and philosophy.

    But this science corresponded so much with his natural genius, that he could not forbear making that his business, which he intended only as his diversion; and still growing more eager, as he advanced further, he at length determined wholly to master that profession, and to take his degree in physick, before he engaged in the duties of the ministry.

    It is, I believe, a very just observation that men's ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity. Providence seldom sends any into the world with an inclination to attempt great things, who have not abilities, likewise, to perform them. To have formed the design of gaining a complete knowledge of medicine, by way of digression from theological studies, would have been little less than madness in most men, and would have only exposed them to ridicule and contempt. But Boerhaave was one of those mighty geniuses, to whom scarce any thing appears impossible, and who think nothing worthy of their efforts, but what appears insurmountable to common understandings.

    Method of his medical studies

    He began this new course of study by a diligent perusal of Vesalius, Bartholine, and Fallopius; and, to acquaint himself more fully with the structure of bodies, was a constant attendant upon Nuck's publick dissections in the theatre, and himself very accurately inspected the bodies of different animals.

    Having furnished himself with this preparatory knowledge, he began to read the ancient physicians, in the order of time, pursuing his inquiries downwards, from Hippocrates through all the Greek and Latin writers.

    Finding, as he tells us himself, that Hippocrates was the original source of all medical knowledge, and that all the later writers were little more than transcribers from him, he returned to him with more attention, and spent much time in making extracts from him, digesting his treatises into method, and fixing them in his memory.

    He then descended to the moderns, among whom none engaged him longer, or improved him more, than Sydenham, to whose merit he has left this attestation, "that he frequently perused him, and always with greater eagerness."

    He expands beyond medical studies into related fields

    His insatiable curiosity after knowledge engaged him now in the practice of chymistry, which he prosecuted with all the ardour of a philosopher, whose industry was not to be wearied, and whose love of truth was too strong to suffer him to acquiesce in the reports of others.

    Yet he did not suffer one branch of science to withdraw his attention from others; anatomy did not withhold him from chymistry, nor chymistry, enchanting as it is, from the study of botany, in which he was no less skilled than in other parts of physick. He was not only a careful examiner of all the plants in the garden of the university, but made excursions, for his further improvement, into the woods and fields, and left no place unvisited, where any increase of botanical knowledge could be reasonable hoped for.

    In conjunction with all these inquiries, he still pursued his theological studies, and still, as we are informed by himself, "proposed, when he had made himself master of the whole art of physick, and obtained the honour of a degree in that science, to petition regularly for a license to preach, and to engage in the cure of souls;" and intended, in his theological exercise, to discuss this question, "why so many were formerly converted to christianity by illiterate persons, and so few at present by men of learning."

    In pursuance of this plan he went to Hardewich, in order to take the degree of doctor in physick, which he obtained in July, 1693, having performed a publick disputation, "de utilitate explorandorum excrementorum in ægris, ut signorum."

    Scandal prevents him from pursuing a religious career

    Then returning to Leyden, full of his pious design of undertaking the ministry, he found, to his surprise, unexpected obstacles thrown in his way, and an insinuation dispersed through the university, that made him suspected, not of any slight deviation from received opinions, not of any pertinacious adherence to his own notions in doubtful and disputable matters, but of no less than Spinosism, or, in plainer terms, of atheism itslef.

    How so injurious a report came to be raised, circulated and credited, will be, doubtless, very eagerly inquired; we shall, therefore, give the relation, not only to satisfy the curiosity of mankind, but to show that no merit, however exalted, is exempt from being attacked, but wounded, by the most contemptible whispers. Those who cannot strike with force, can, however, poison their weapon, and, weak as they are, give mortal wounds, and bring a hero to the grave; so true is that observation, that many are able to do hurt, but few do good.

    This detestable calumny owed its rise to an incident, from which no consequence of importance could be possibly apprehended. As Boerhaave was sitting in a common boat, there arose a conversation among the passengers, upon the impious and pernicious doctrine of Spinosa, which, as they all agreed, tends to the utter overthrow of all religion. Boerhaave sat, and attended silently to this discourse for some time, till one of the company, willing to distinguish himself by his zeal, instead of confuting the positions of Spinosa by argument, began to give a loose to contumelious language, and virulent invectives, which Boerhaave was so little pleased with, that, at last, he could not forbear asking him, whether he had ever read the author he declaimed against.

    The orator, not being able to make much answer, was checked in the midst of his invectives, but not without feeling a secret resentment against the person who had, at once, interrupted his harangue, and exposed his ignorance.

    This was observed by a stranger who was in the boat with them; he inquired of his neighbour the name of the young man, whose question had put an end to the discourse, and having learned it, set it down in his pocket-book, as it appears, with a malicious design, for in a few days it was the common conversation at Leyden, that Boerhaave had revolted to Spinosa.

    It was in vain that his advocates and friends pleaded his learned and unanswerable confutation of all atheistical opinions, and particularly of the system of Spinosa, in his discourse of the distinction between soul and body. Such calumnies are not easily suppressed, when they are once become general. They are kept alive and supported by the malice of bad, and, sometimes, by the zeal of good men, who though they d not absolutely believe them, think it yet the securest method to keep not only guilty, but suspected men out of publick employments, upon this principle, that the safety of many is to be preferred before the advantage of few.

    Boerhaave, finding this formidable opposition raised against his pretensions to ecclesiastical honours or preferments, and even against his design of assuming the character of a divine, thought it neither necessary nor prudent to struggle with the torrent of popular prejudice, as he was equally qualified for a profession, not, indeed, of equal dignity or importance, but which must, undoubtedly, claim the second place among those which are of the greatest benefit to mankind.

    A full turn to medicine

    He, therefore, applied himself to his medical studies with new ardour and alacrity, reviewed all his former observations and inquiries, and was continually employed in making new acquisitions.

    Having now qualified himself for the practice of physick, he began to visit patients, but without that encouragement which others, not equally deserving, have sometimes met with. His business was, at first, not great, and his circumstances by no means easy; but still, superiour to any discouragement, he continued his search after knowledge, and determined that prosperity, if ever he was to enjoy it, should be the consequence not of mean art, or disingenuous solicitations, but of real merit, and solid learning.

    His steady adherence to his resolutions appears yet more plainly from this circumstance: he was, while he yet remained in this unpleasing situation, invited by one of the first favourites of king William the third, to settle at the Hague, upon very advantageous conditions; but declined the offer; for having no ambition but after knowledge, he was desirous of living at liberty, without any restraint upon his looks, his thoughts, or his tongue, and at the utmost distance from all contentions and state-parties. His time was wholly taken up in visiting the sick, studying, making chymical experiments, searching into every part of medicine with the utmost diligence, teaching the mathematicks, and reading the scriptures, and those authors who profess to teach a certain method of loving God.

    Lecturer in Physick at University of Leiden

    This was his method of living to the year 1710, when he was recommended, by Van Berg, to the university, as a proper person to succeed Drelincurtius in the professorship of physick, and elected, without any solicitations on his part, and almost without his consent, on the 18th of May.

    On this occasion, having observed, with grief, that Hippocrates, whom he regarded not only as the father, but as the prince of physicians, was not sufficiently read or esteemed by young students, he pronounced an oration, "de commendado studio Hippocratico;" by which he restored that great author to his just and ancient reputation.

    He now began to read publick lectures with great applause, and was prevailed upon, by his audience, to enlarge his original design, and instruct them in chymistry.

    This he undertook not only to the great advantage of his pupils, but to the great improvement of the art itself, which had, hitherto, been treated only in a confused and irregular manner, and was little more than a history of particular experiments, not reduced to certain principles, nor connected one with another: this vast chaos he reduced to order, and made that clear and easy, which was before, to the last degree, difficult and obscure.

    His reputation now began to bear some proportion to his merit, and extended itself to distant universities; so that, in 1703, the professorship of physick being vacant at Groningen, he was invited thither; but he refused to leave Leyden, and chose to continue his present course of life.

    This invitation and refusal being related to the governours of the university of Leyden, they had so grateful a sense of his regard for them, that they immediately voted an honorary increase of his salary, and promised him the first professorship that should be vacant.

    On this occasion he pronounced an oration upon the use of mechanicks in the science of physick, in which he endeavoured to recommend a rational and mathematical inquiry into the causes of diseases, and the structure of bodies; and to show the follies and weaknesses of the jargon introduced by Paraclesus, Helmont, and other chymical enthusiasts, who have obtruded upon the world the most airy dreams, and, instead of enlightening their readers with explications of nature, have darkened the plainest appearances, and bewildered mankind in errour and obscurity.

    Promotion to Professor of Physick and Botany at University of Leyden

    Boerhaave had now for nine years read physical lectures, but without the title or dignity of a professor, when by the death of professor Hotten, the professorship of physick and botany fell to him of course.

    On this occasion he asserted the simplicity and facility of the science of physick, in opposition to those that think obscurity contributes to the dignity of learning, and that to be admired it is necessary to be understood.

    His profession of botany made it part of his duty to superintend the physical garden, which improved so much the immense number of new plants which he procured, that it was enlarged to twice its original extent.

    In 1714, he was deservedly advanced to the highest dignities of the university, and, in the same year, made physician of St. Augustin's hospital in Leyden, into which the students are admitted twice a week, to learn the practice of physick.

    This was of equal advantage to the sick and to the students, for the success of his practice was the best demonstration of the soundness of his principles.

    A lecture on experimental philosophy; backlash and support

    When he had laid down his office of governour of the university, in 1715, he made an oration upon the subject of "attaining to certainty in natural philosophy;" in which he declares, in the strongest terms, in favour of experimental knowledge; and reflects, with just severity, upon those arrogant philosophers, who are too easily disgusted with the slow methods of obtaining true notions by frequent experiments; and who, possessed with too high an opinion of their own abilities, rather choose to consult their own imaginations, than inquire into nature, and are better pleased with the charming amusement of forming hypotheses, than the toilsome drudgery of making observations.

    The emptiness and uncertainty of all those systems, whether venerable for their antiquity, or agreeable for their novelty, he has evidently shown; and not only declared, but proved, that we are entirely ignorant of the principles of things, and that all the knowledge we have, is of such qualities alone as are discoverable by experience, or such as may be deduced from them by mathematical demonstration.

    This discourse, filled as it was with piety, and a true sense of the greatness of the supreme being, and the incomprehensibility of his works, gave such offence to a professor of Franeker, who professed the utmost esteem for Des Cartes, and considered his principles as the bulwark of orthodoxy, that he appeared in vindication of his darling author, and spoke of the injury done him with the utmost vehemence, declaring little less than that the cartesian system and the christian must inevitably stand and fall together; and that to say that we were ignorant of the principles of things, was not only to enlist among the skepticks, but to sink into atheism itself.

    So far can prejudice darken the understanding, as to make it consider precarious systems as the chief support of sacred and invariable truth.

    This treatment of Boerhaave was so far resented by the governours of his university, that they procured from Franeker a recantation of the invective that had been thrown out against him: this was not only complied with, but offers were made him of more ample satisfaction; to which he returned an answer not less to his honour than the victory he gained, "that he should think himself sufficiently compensated, if his adversary received no further molestation on his account."

    International recognition

    So far was this weak and injudicious attack from shaking a reputation not casually raised by fashion or caprice, but founded upon solid merit, that the same year his correspondence was desired upon botany and natural philosophy by the academy of sciences at Paris, of which he was, upon the death of count Marsigli, in the year 1728, elected a member.

    Nor were the French the only nation by which this great man was courted and distinguished; for, two years after, he was elected fellow of our Royal society.

    It cannot be doubted but, thus caressed and honoured with the highest and most publick marks and esteem by other nations, he became more celebrated in the university; for Boerhaave was not one of those learned men, of whom the world has seen too many, that disgrace their studies by their vices, and, by unaccountable weaknesses, make themselves ridiculous at home, while their writings procure them the veneration of distant countries, where their learning is known, but not their follies.

    Not that his countrymen can be charged with being insensible to his excellencies, till other nations taught them to admire him; for, in 1718, he was chosen to succeed Le Mort in the professorship of chymistry; on which occasion he pronounced an oration, "De chemia errores suos expurgante," in which he treated that science with an elegance of style not often to be found in chymical writers, who seem generally to have affected, not only a barbarous, but unintelligible phrase, and to have, like the Pythagoreans of old, wrapt up their secrets in symbols and enigmatical expressions, either because they believed that mankind would reverence most what they least understood, or because they wrote not from benevolence, but vanity, and were desirous to be praised for their knowledge, though they could not prevail upon themselves to communicate it.

    Serious illness in 1722 interrupts his efforts

    In 1722, his course, both of lectures and practice, was interrupted by the gout, which, as he relates it in his speech after his recovery, he brought upon himself, by an imprudent confidence in the strength of his own constitution, and by transgressing those rules which he had a thousand times inculcated in his pupils and acquaintance. Rising in the morning before day, he went immediately, hot and sweating, from his bed into the open air, and exposed himself to the cold dews.

    The history of his illness can hardly be read without horrour: he was for five months confined to his bed, where he lay upon his back without daring to attempt the least motion, because any effort renewed his torments, which were so exquisite, that he was, at length, not only deprived of motion but of sense. Here art was at a stand; nothing could be attempted, because nothing could be proposed with the least prospect of success. At length, having, in the sixth month of his illness, obtained some remission, he took simple medicines in large quantities, and, at length, wonderfully recovered.

    His recovery, so much desired, and so unexpected, was celebrated on Jan. 11, 1723, when he opened his school again, with general joy and publick illuminations.

    It would be an injury to the memory of Boerhaave, not to mention what was related by himself to one of his friends, that when he lay whole days and nights without sleep, he found no method of diverting his thoughts so effectual, as meditation upon his studies, and that he often relieved and mitigated the sense of his torments, by the recollection of what he had read, and by reviewing those stores of knowledge, which he had reposited in his memory.

    This is, perhaps, an instance of fortitude and steady composure of mind, which would have been for ever the boast of the stoick schools, and increased the reputation of Seneca or Cato. The patience of Boerhaave, as it was more rational, was more lasting than theirs; it was that "patentia christiana," which Lipsius, the great master of the stoical philosophy, begged of God in his last hours; it was founded on religion, not vanity, not on vain reasonings, but on confidence in God.

    Further illnesses force him to slow down; an argument against intellectual arrogance

    In 1727, he was seized with a violent burning fever, which continued so long, that he was once more given up by his friends.

    From this time he was frequently afflicted with returns of his distemper, which yet did not so far subdue him, as to make him lay aside his studies or his lectures, till, in 1726, he found himself so worn out, that it was improper for him to continue any longer the professorships of botany or chymistry, which he, therefore, resigned, April 28, and, upon his resignation, spoke a "Sermo academicus," or oration, in which he asserts the power and wisdom of the creator from the wonderful fabrick of the human body; and confutes all those idle reasoners, who pretend to explain the formation of parts, or the animal operations, to which he proves, that art can produce nothing equal, nor anything parallel. One instance I shall mention, which is produced by him, of the vanity of any attempt to rival the work of God. Nothing is more boasted by the admirers of chymistry, than that they can, by artificial heats and digestion, imitate the productions of nature. "Let all these heroes of science meet together," says Boerhaave; "let them take bread and wine, the food that forms the blood of man, and, by assimilation, contributes to the growth of the body: let them try all their arts, they shall not be able, from these materials, to produce a single drop of blood. So much is the most common act of nature beyond the utmost efforts of the most extended science!"

    From this time Boerhaave lived with less publick employment, indeed, but not an idle or an useless life; for, besides his hours spent in instructing his scholars, a great part of his time was taken up by patients, which came, when the distemper would admit it, from all parts of Europe to consult him, or by letters which, in more urgent cases, were continually sent to inquire his opinion and ask his advice.

    Of his sagacity, and the wonderful penetration with which he often discovered and described, at the first sight of a patient, such distempers as betray themselves by no symptoms to common eyes, such wonderful relations have been spread over the world, as, though attested beyond doubt, can scarcely be credited. I mention none of them, because I have no opportunity of collecting testimonies, or distinguishing between those accounts which are well proved, and those which owe their rise to fiction and credulity.

    An appreciation to careful diligence over empty theorizing

    Yet I cannot but implore, with the greatest earnestness, such as have been conversant with this great man, that they will not so far neglect the common interest of mankind, as to suffer any of these circumstances to be lost to posterity. Men are generally idle, and ready to satisfy themselves, and intimidate the industry of others, by calling that impossible which is only difficult. The skill to which Boerhaave attained, by a long and unwearied observation of nature, ought, therefore, to be transmitted, in all its particulars, to future ages, that his successors may be ashamed to fall below him, and that none may hereafter excuse his ignorance, by pleading the impossibility of clearer knowledge.

    Yet so far was this great master from presumptuous confidence in his abilities, that, in his examinations of the sick, he was remarkably circumstantial and particular. He well knew that the originals of distempers are often at a distance from their visible effects; that to conjecture, where certainty may be obtained, is either vanity or negligence; and that life is not to be sacrificed, either to an affectation of quick discernment, or of crowded practice, but may be required, if trifled away, at the hand of the physician.

    1737: Onset of his final illness, and death (September 23, 1738)

    About the middle of the year, 1737, he felt the first approaches of that fatal illness that brought him to the grave, of which we have inserted an account, written by himself, Sept. 8, 1738, to a friend at London; which deserves not only to be preserved, as an historical relation of the disease which deprived us of so great a man, but as a proof of his piety and resignation to the divine will.

    In this last illness, which was, to the last degree, lingering, painful, and afflictive, his constancy and firmness did not forsake him. He neither intermitted the necessary cares of life, nor forgot the proper preparations for death. Though dejection and lowness of spirits was, as he himself tells us, part of his distemper, yet even this, in some measure, gave way to that vigour, which the soul receives from a consciousness of innocence.

    About three weeks before his death he received a visit, at his country house, from the reverend Mr. Schultens, his intimate friend, who found him sitting without-door, with his wife, sister, and daughter; after the compliments of form, the ladies withdrew, and left them to private conversation; when Boerhaave took occasion to tell him what had been, during his illness, the chief subject of his thoughts. He had never doubted of the spiritual and immaterial nature of the soul; but declared that he had lately had a kind of experimental certainty of the distinction between corporeal and thinking substances, which mere reason and philosophy cannot afford, and opportunities of contemplating the wonderful and inexplicable union of soul and body, which nothing but long sickness can give. This he illustrated by a description of the effects which the infirmities of his body had upon his faculties, which yet they did not so oppress or vanquish, but his soul was always master of itself, and always resigned to the pleasure of its maker.

    He related, with great concern, that once his patience so far gave way to extremity of pain, that, after having lain fifteen hours in exquisite tortures, he prayed to God that he might be set free by death.

    Mr. Schultens, by way of consolation, answered, that he thought such wishes, when forced by continued and excessive torments, unavoidable in the present state of human nature; that the best men, even Job himself, were not able to refrain from such starts of impatience. This he did not deny; but said, "he that loves God, ought to think nothing desirable, but what is most pleasing to the supreme goodness."

    Such were his sentiments, and such his conduct, in this state of weakness and pain: as death approached nearer, he was so far from terrour or confusion, that he seemed even less sensible of pain, and more cheerful under his torments, which continued till the 23rd day of September, 1738, on which he died, between four and five in the morning, in the 70th year of his age.

    An appreciation of his character

    Thus died Boerhaave, a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletick constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestick and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius.

    The vigour and activity of his mind sparkled visibly in his eyes; nor was it ever observed, that any change of his fortune, or alteration in his affairs, whether happy or unfortunate, affected his countenance.

    He was always cheerful, and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation; he was never soured by calumny and detraction, nor ever thought it necessary to confute them; "for they are sparks," said he, "which, if you do not blow them, will go out of themselves."

    Yet he took care never to provoke enemies by severity of censure, for he never dwelt on the faults or defects of others, and was so far from inflaming the envy of his rivals , by dwelling on his own excellencies, that he rarely mentioned himself or his writings.

    He was not to be overawed or depressed by the presence, frowns, or insolence of great men, but persisted, on all occasions, in the right, with a resolution always present and always calm. He was modest, but not timorous, and firm without rudeness.

    He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men's inclinations and capacity by their aspect.

    His method of life was to study in the morning and evening, and to allot the middle of the day to his publick business. His usual exercise was riding, till, in his latter years, his distempers made it more proper for him to walk; when he was weary, he amused himself with playing on the violin.

    His greatest pleasure was to retire to his house in the country, where he had a garden stored with all the herbs and trees which the climate would bear; here he used to enjoy his hours unmolested, and prosecute his studies without interruption.

    The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor forseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity. Boerhaave lost none of his hours, but, when he had obtained one science, attempted another; he added physick to divinity, chymistry to mathematicks, and anatomy to botany. He examined systems by experiments, and formed experiments into systems. He neither neglected the observations of others, nor blindly submitted to celebrated names. He neither thought so highly of himself as to imagine he could receive no light from books, nor so meanly, as to believe he could discover nothing but what was to be learned from them. He examined the observations of other men, but trusted only to his own.

    Nor was he unacquainted with the art of recommending truth by elegance, and embellishing the philosopher with polite literature: he knew that but a small part of mankind will sacrifice their pleasure to their improvement, and those authors who would find many readers, must endeavour to please while they instruct.

    He knew the importance of his own writings to mankind, and lest he might, by a roughness and barbarity of style, too frequent among men of great learning, disappoint his own intentions, and make his labours less useful, he did not neglect the politer arts of eloquence and poetry. Thus was his learning, at once, various and exact, profound and agreeable.

    Boerhaave's religious thinking

    But his knowledge, however uncommon, holds, in his character, but the second place; his virtue was yet much more uncommon than his learning. He was an admirable example of temperance, fortitude, humility, and devotion. His piety, and a religious sense of his dependance on God, was the basis of all his virtues, and the principle of his whole conduct. He was too sensible of his weakness to ascribe any thing to himself, or to conceive that he could subdue passion, or withstand temptation, by his own natural power; he attributed every good thought, and every laudable action, to the father of goodness. Being once asked by a friend, who had often admired his patience under great provocations, whether he knew what it was to be angry, and by what means he had so entirely suppressed that impetuous and ungovernable passion, he answered, with the utmost frankness and sincerity, that he was naturally quick of resentment, but that he had, by daily prayer and meditation, at length attained to this mastery over himself.

    As soon as he arose in the morning, it was, throughout his whole life, his daily practice to retire for an hour to private prayer and meditation; this, he often told his friends, gave him spirit and vigour in the business of the day, and this he, therefore, commended, as the best rule of life; for nothing, he knew, could support the soul, in all distresses, but a confidence in the supreme being; nor can a steady and rational magnanimity flow from any other source than a consciousness of the divine favour.

    He asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures; and maintained that they alone taught the way of salvation, and that they only could give peace of mind. The excellency of the christian religion was the frequent subject of his conversation. A strict obedience to the doctrine, and a diligent imitation of the example of our blessed saviour, he often declared to be the foundation of true tranquility. He recommended to his friends a careful observation of the precept of Moses, concerning the love of God and man. He worshipped God as he is in himself, without attempting to inquire into his nature. He desired only to think of God, what God knows of himself. There he stopped, lest, by indulging his own ideas, he should form a deity from his own imagination, and sin by falling down before him. To the will of God he paid an absolute submission, without endeavouring to discover the reason of his determinations; and this he accounted the first and most inviolable duty of a christian. When he heard of a criminal condemned to die, he used to think : Who can tell whether this man is not better than I? or, if I am better, it is not to be ascribed to myself, but to the goodness of God.

    Such were the sentiments of Boerhaave, whose words we have added in this note. So far was this man from being made impious by philosophy, or vain by knowledge, or by virtue, that he ascribed all his abilities to the bounty, and all his goodness to the grace of God. May his example extend its influence to his admirers and followers! May those who study his writings imitate his life! and those who endeavour after his knowledge, aspire likewise to his piety!

    His family

    He married, September 17, 1710, Mary Drolenveaux, the only daughter of a burgomaster of Leyden, by whom he had Joanna Maria, who survived her father, and three other children, who died in their infancy.

    His published works

    He published, in 1707, Institutiones medicæ; to which he added, in 1708, Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morbis.

    1710, Index stirpium in horto academico.

    1719, De materia medica, et remediorum formulis liber; and, in 1727, a second edition.

    1720, Alter index stirpium, &c. adorned with plates, and containing twice the number of plants as the former.

    1722, Epistola ad cl. Ruischium, qua sententiam Malpighianam de glandulis defendit.

    1724, Atrocis nec prius descripti morbi historia illustrissimi baronis Wassenariæ.

    1725, Opera anatomica et chirurgica Andreæ Vesalii; with the life of Vesalius.

    1728, Altera atrocis rarissimique morbi marchionis de Sancto Albano historia.

    Auctores de lue Aphrodisiaca, cum tractatu præfixo.

    1731, Aretæi Cappadocis nova editio.

    1732, Elementa Chemiæ.

    1734, Observata de argento vivo, ad Reg. Soc. et Acad. Scient.

    These are the writings of the great Boerhaave, which have made all encomiums useless and vain, since no man can attentively peruse them, without admiring the abilities, and reverencing the virtue of the author.

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