Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts

In Inventing Chemistry, historian John C. Powers turns his attention to Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738), a Dutch medical and chemical professor whose work reached a wide, educated audience and became the template for chemical knowledge in the 18th century. The primary focus of this study is Boerhaave’s educational philosophy, and Powers traces its development from Boerhaave’s early days as a student in Leiden through his publication of the Elementa chemiae in 1732. Powers reveals how Boerhaave restructured and reinterpreted various practices from diverse chemical traditions—including craft chemistry, Paracelsian medical chemistry, and alchemy—shaping them into a chemical course that conformed to the pedagogical and philosophical norms of Leiden’s medical faculty. In doing so, Boerhaave gave his chemistry a coherent organizational structure and philosophical foundation and thus transformed an artisanal practice into an academic discipline. Inventing Chemistry will be essential reading for historians of chemistry, medicine, and academic life.

About the Author

Herman Boerhaave. CHF collections.

John C. Powers is a collateral assistant professor in the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. He holds a degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Indiana University. His research focuses on the history of chemistry and alchemy during the Scientific Revolution, natural philosophy and medicine in early modern universities, and the developmental of empirical and experimental methods in science. He has been the recipient of a National Science Foundation Scholar’s Award, and his other notable publications include “‘Ars sine arte:’ Nicholas Lemery and the End of Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century France” (Ambix, 1998) and “Chemistry Enters the University: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts” (in History of Universities, 2006).