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Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
JOHANN BAPTIST VAN HELMONT, a celebrated Belgian physician, scholar and
visionary, of noble family, was born at Brussels in 1577. At an early
age he began the study of medicine, and was appointed Professor of
Surgery at the University of Louvain. Becoming, however, infected with
the delusions of alchemy, and being possessed of an ardent imagination,
he inclined naturally to the study of occult science, and was infatuated
with the idea of discovering a universal remedy. He was, moreover, a
follower of the eminent theologian, Johann Tauler (1290-1361), founder
of mystic theology in Germany. Van Helmont has been described as an
enthusiastic and fantastic, though upright friend of the truth. He
adhered to the theosophic and alchemistic doctrines of a somewhat
earlier epoch, and was an admirer of the dogmatic pseudo-philosophy of
The German writer, Johann Christian Ferdinand Hoefer (1811-1878), said
that Van Helmont was much superior to Paracelsus, whom he took as his
model. He had the permanent distinction of revealing scientifically the
existence of invisible, impalpable substances, namely gases. And he was
the first to employ the word gas as the name of all elastic fluids
except common air. Van Helmont graduated as Doctor of Medicine in
1599, and after several years of study at different European
universities, he returned home and married Margaret van Ranst, a noble
lady of Brabant. He then settled down on his estate at Vilvoorden, near
Brussels, where he remained until his death in 1644.
Johann Hermann Baas, in his "History of Medicine," characterizes him as
a fertile genius in the department of chemistry, but denies that he was
a great and independent spirit, outrunning his age, or impressing upon
it the stamp of his own individuality. Van Helmont, like many another
irregular practitioner, achieved fame by some remarkable cures. It was
said of him that his patients never languished long under his care,
being always killed or cured within two or three days. He was frequently
called to attend those who had been given up by other physicians. And to
the latters' chagrin, such patients were often unexpectedly restored to
A lover of the marvellous, and credulous to the point of superstition,
Van Helmont became infatuated with erroneous doctrines. His
contemporaries, dazzled, it may be, by the brilliancy of his mental
powers, regarded him as an erratic genius, but not as a charlatan.
The term spiritual vitalism has been applied to the philosophy of Van
Helmont. He maintained that the primary cause of all organization was
Archaeus (Gr. +archaios+, primitive), a term said to have been
invented by Basil Valentine, the German alchemist (born 1410).
This has been defined as a spirit, or invisible man or animal, of
ethereal substance, the counterpart of the visible body, within which it
resides, and to which it imparts life, strength, and the power of
assimilating food. Archaeus was regarded as the creative
spirit, which, working upon the raw material of water or fluidity, by
means of a ferment promotes the various actions which result in the
development and nutrition of the physical organism. As life and all
vital action depended upon archaeus, any disturbance of this spirit
was regarded as the probable cause of fevers and other morbid