Hermann Boerhaave1668–1738

Boerhaave’s Method

The focus of medical research was moving northwards in Europe. Italy then France held sway until Holland and Germany assumed greater influence. One of the aspects in this shift was the changing methods of teaching medicine, and Boerhaave’s clinical practices at Leiden did much to transform the subject. The importance of his teaching resulted in him being known as “communis totius Europae praeceptor” (the general teacher of all Europe). His model was Hippocrates, to whom he returned and reintroduced to his students, by incorporating new scientific developments (and particularly chemistry - of which was one of the first University professor), in the therapeutic approach of the Greek physician. In the words of Samuel Johnson: “He now began to read publick lectures with great applause, and was prevailed upon, by his audience, to enlarge his original design, and instruct them in chymistry. This he undertook not only to the great advantage of his pupils, but to the great improvement of the art itself, which had, hitherto, been treated only in a confused and irregular manner, and was little more than a history of particular experiments, not reduced to certain principles, nor connected one with another: this vast chaos he reduced to order, and made that clear and easy, which was before, to the last degree, difficult and obscure.” Students from across Europe sought to study with Boerhaave and they carried his methods back to their own countries. Albrecht Haller followed in his footsteps, and Boerhaave’s portrait is combined with Haller’s book in praise of his methods. Haller attended Boerhaave’s lectures between 1725 and 1727 and remarked “that I was filled with an unbelievable delight, when I heard him explain for the first time the true medicine with extraordinarily charming eloquence”. A few years after Haller had left, Boerhaave delivered a series of lectures on the nervous system. These followed his general principles which were guided by mechanics and microscopy. However, the animal spirit continued to course through the nerves of Boerhaave’s and Haller’s systems.