Evan Ragland

Sidney M. Edelstein Fellow, 2010–2011

Evan Ragland is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Experimenting with Chemical Bodies: Knowledge and Practice in the Interrelation of Anatomy, Chemistry, and Physiology, 1658–1845,” focuses on the history of chymistry in the Netherlands in the 17th century, especially in Amsterdam and Leiden. This work also follows select connections in the history of chemistry, medicine, and experimentation into the 18th and 19th centuries.

Current Research

Ragland’s research in Europe and at the Chemical Heritage Foundation for the years 2009–2010 has enabled him to recover not only the rich history of chemistry and chemical medicine in the early modern Low Countries, but also an unnoticed legacy that had an important history into the early 19th century. This prospectus will restate the importance of his current research and then indicate the significance of expanding the project to include the history of experimental work on the chemistry of the body and digestion into the 18th and early 19th centuries. By keeping a narrow focus on the long reception of 17th-century experimental work into the succeeding centuries, he will be able to maintain both a diachronic structure and high standards of scholarly rigor. Although Claude Bernard, a giant of 19th-century physiology and medicine, famously said that an experimentalist should “read little,” his own work was explicitly and implicitly indebted to a long tradition of experimentation that brought together anatomy, chemistry, and medicine. A consistent research tradition of several major research centers, united by pedagogical, textual, and material links, existed from the mid-17th to the early 19th century. This tradition, though primarily focused on the phenomena of chemical digestion and disease, was a key component of the comprehensive experimental approach to living bodies heralded in the 19th century.

The development of experimentation in the 17th century has attracted attention, and the literature affords fertile ground for future work. Issues of replication, witnessing, social legitimization, the notion of experience, mathematics, instrumentation, empiricism and constructivism often hinge crucially on analyses of experimentation. As this project will demonstrate, 17th- and 19th-century medical experiments are mutually enlightening and revealing. Even considered singly, the important and widely practiced field of physiological investigation in the second half of the 17th century demands much further study. Reinier de Graaf (1641–1673), Franciscus dele Boë Sylvius (1614–1672), and Florentius Schuyl (1619–1669), in particular, appear as key figures in this part of the project.

Further, the very methods and ideas of the researchers in the second half of the 17th century were taken up by scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Throughout, Ragland describes the place of chemistry as a vigorous experimental discipline and as a pragmatic middle ground, or between reductionist mechanism and superficial qualitative explanations in the 17th century and vitalism in the 18th century. To show this, Ragland moves from the critical reception of the Sylvian school in the works of Johann Conrad Brunner, Johann Conrad Peyer, Johannes Bohn, and Friedrich Hoffmann. Ragland shows that Hoffmann, though a strong mechanist, retained key Sylvian accounts of chemical digestion, and even repeated Sylvius’s experiments. Work on digestion at Montpellier done by Philippe Hecquet and Jean Astruc shows a similar cautious acceptance of a chemical account of digestion, as well as interest in chemico-medical experiments.

This interest is carried through the Stahlian teaching of Guillame-François Rouelle and appears most strongly in the later works of Friedrich Tiedemann and Leopold Gmelin, and François Leuret and Jean-Louis Lassaigne. These investigations set the stage for the inquiries of François Magendie (1783–1855) and his protegé Claude Bernard (1813–1878). Magendie and Bernard both replicated De Graaf’s techniques, and Bernard used De Graaf and his approach as an icon of experimental medicine.

This research tradition gathered around the question of the nature of digestion that spanned nearly two centuries, from the mid-17th to the early 19th century, was a coherent, gradually developing cluster of similar questions, materials, techniques, and experimental setups that provided a vital conduit for laboratory and clinical pedagogy and research. By attending to experimentation, we can see a patchy continuity of experimental stances and even a shared library of techniques and concepts. Keeping a tight focus on work on digestion allows for a long-term study, and so a view of the discontinuous but ordered growth of a scientific research tradition.

Recent Publications