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Helmont, Johannes Baptista Van

1. Dates
Born: Brussels, 12 Jan. 1579
Died: Vilvorde (Belgium), 30 Dec. 1644
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 65
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry, Government Official
Helmont was from the Flemish landed gentry. His father, who died in 1580, was state counselor of Brabant. His mother, Marie de Stassart, was from a particularly illustrious Belgian family.
Various indications in his biography make it clear that he grew up in circumstances that were affluent at the least.
3. Nationality
Birth: Belgium
Career: Belgium
Death: Belgium
4. Education
Schooling: Louvain, M.D.
His first course in the classics and philosophy was followed from 1594 by studies in a variety of subjects from geography to law.
Upon the completion of his initial studies (astronomy, logic, geometry, algebra), Helmont refused to accept an M.A. because he felt that he had not learned anything. He studied under some Jesuits after refusing the M.A., but felt he did not learn anything from them either.
He did, however, return to Louvian to earn an M.D. in 1599.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
In 1625 the General inquisition of Spain condemned 27 of Helmont's "propositions" for heresy, impudent arrogance, and association with Lutheran and Calvinist doctrine. His treatise, De magnetica vulnerum, was impounded the following year. He was condemned by the Louvain Faculty in 1622-34 for adhering to Paracelsus.
He was placed in ecclesiastical custody for 4 days in 1634, then transferred to the Minorite convent at Brussels. After several interrogations he was released but placed under house arrest. This was finally lifted in 1636, but church proceedings against him were not formally ended until 1642. Also in 1642 he obtained the ecclesiastic imprimatur for his treatise on fever, and in 1646 his widow received his official rehabilitation from the archbishop of Malines. Because of this pressure, Helmont published nothing from 1624-42.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Iatrochemistry, Natural Philosophy, Medicine
Subordinate: Pharmacology
His published works include De magnetica vulnerum (Paris, 1621), Supplementum de spadanis fontibus (Liege, 1624), Opuscula medica inaudita (Cologne, 1644) and Ortus medicinae (Amsterdam, 1648).
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Academia, Medicine
Helmont's mother was well endowed. However, around the age of twenty he turned over his personal holdings to his sister and formally renounced the privileges of his rank.
Upon graduation Helmont was offered a well-endowed canonry, but he refused it.
1596, he lectured on surgery at the medical college of Louvain.
1599-1605, he toured Switzerland, Italy, France, and England.
1605, he practiced medicine during the plague in Antwerp.
Although he was a physician, Helmont practiced for only a short time. After 1605 he refused on principle to practice medicine and profit from the suffering of others. He did treat people, but free of charge.
In 1609, Helmont married Margarita Van Ranst, who was also from the Flemish landed gentry. This marriage made Helmont the manorial lord of Merode, Royenborch, Oorschot, and Pellines. The income from the estates supported his years of private research.
8. Patronage
Type: Court Official
Helmont's life was virtually free of patronage, undoubtedly because of his personal means. He declined the offers from Ernst of Bavaria, the Archbishop of Cologne, and Emperors Rudolf II, Matthias, and Ferdinand II. In 1604 he was presented to the Queen of England, but there is no sign of patronage.
Marie de' Medici appears to have intervened in the church proceedings again him. This is most assuredly one dimension of the system of patronage.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
According to the Biographie nationale de Belgique Helmont was a Rosicrucian. Neither Yates nor other sources confirms this.
  1. Walter Pagel, "The Life of Van Helmont in the Light of his Endeavor," Chapter 1 of Johan Baptista Van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine, (Cambridge, 1982).
  2. Biographie nationale . . . de Belgique, 8, 902-24.
  3. Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, 11, 703-7.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Paul Neve de Mevergnies, Jean-Baptiste van Helmont, philosophe par le feu, (Paris, 1935).
  2. G. des Marez, "L'état civil de J.-B. van Helmont," Annales de la Société d'archéologie de Bruxelles, 21 (1907), pp.107-123.
  3. H. de Waele, J.-B.van Helmont, (Brussels, 1947).
  4. A.-J. Mandon, "J.B. van Helmont . . ." Mémoire médaillé par l'Académie Royale de Médicine de Balgique, (1886?), pp. 553- 729.
  5. H. Stanley Redgrove, Joannes Baptista van Helmont: Alchemist, Physician and Philosopher, (London, 1922).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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