Chemical remedies in the 18th century: mercury and Alkahest

Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb, Marcia Helena Mendes Ferraz, Silvia Waisse


Herman Boerhaave approached Chemistry from an intellectual makeup strongly influenced by the latest natural philosophy especially Bacon’s brand of induction, prioritizing experiment over rational deduction. Boerhaave rated the alchemical tradition as the one that had more thoroughly studied and explained the natures of physical bodies and the effects they are capable of producing, consequently the alchemists were the closest ones to Bacon’s program. Until late in his career, Boerhaave upheld the theory of a metallic principle of metals, mercury in particular; this led to an interest on a mythical universal solvent known as Alkahest and to name mercury as it. Research on mercury had been furthered in Boerhaave’s time also due to its use as “specific” in the treatment of syphilis. Application of Boerhaave’s notions and methods allowed his disciple Gerard Van Swieten to develop a soluble and thus less toxic preparation of mercury, which was massively applied in the treatment of syphilis during the 18th century.

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