Herman Boerhaave: The Nearly Forgotten Father of Modern Medicine

Isaac Newton developed calculus, demonstrated the immense practicality of the scientific method, and discovered the laws of motion that govern the physical world. Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution, discovered the mechanism of natural selection, and established the fundamental principles of biology. Michelangelo perfected the art of sculpture, depicted man as a heroic being, and inspired viewers and artists across centuries. Such men advanced their respective fields by orders of magnitude. Who is their equivalent in the field of medicine? His name, which few people today recognize, is Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738).

In his day, Boerhaave was a world-renowned physician and educator. He held three professorial chairs—in medicine, chemistry, and botany—at the University of Leiden and made the Dutch school the focal point of medical education in the Western world. During the Age of Reason, Boerhaave was the undisputed standard-bearer of Enlightenment medicine:1 When he began his work in medicine, the field was still mired in the mystical methodologies and superstitions of the Middle Ages; by the time he was through, the field was a science concerned with the natural causes and treatments of illnesses. And although his name has since faded into near obscurity, his influence remains.

To acquaint you with this heroic man, let us briefly survey the highlights of his life, and then consider his seminal contributions to medicine. . . .

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1 Richard Toellner, “Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738),” in Klassiker Der Medizin, edited by Dietrich v. Engelhardt and Fritz Hartmann (Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1991), p. 215 (translations mine).

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