van Helmont, Jean Baptista

van Helmont, Jean Baptista (1577–1644) Belgian alchemist and a disciple of Paracelsus. Jean Baptista van Helmont was the first person to teach the chemistry of the human body and is called the Descartes of Medicine. Van Helmont was born in 1577 to a noble family in Bois le Duc, Brabant, Belgium. He studied at Louvain and at age 17 became a medical doctor. He spent 10 years in a largely unsuccessful practice and then met a Paracelsian chemist. He became intensely interested in chemistry and its applications to illness. Van Helmont was the first to understand the chemistry of the digestive process. He is credited with the discovery of carbon dioxide. He put forth the theory that all humans radiate a magnetic fluid, which can be used to influence the minds and bodies of others through will—an idea that later influenced the magnetic healer FRANZ ANTON MESMER. In his early thirties, van Helmont retired to the castle Vilvord near Brussels. He lived in near seclusion and anonymity, studying Alchemy, writing and maintaining a limited practice of medicine. He left the castle only when necessary. Remarkably, van Helmont never asked for payment for his medical services. He died at the castle in 1644 at age 67, renowned throughout Europe as a learned man of good deeds. Van Helmont was convinced that no scientific advancement could come without knowledge of alchemy—no one could ever know “radical knowledge of natural things without the fire.” He never claimed to make the Philosopher's Stone himself, but in his treatise De Natura Vitae Eternae, he described his experiences with it: I have seen and I have touched the Philosophers’ Stone more than once. The color of it was like saffron in powder, but heavy and shining like pounded glass. I had once given me the fourth of a grain—I call a grain that which takes 600 to make an ounce. I made projection with this fourth part of a grain wrapped in paper upon eight ounces of quicksilver heated in a crucible. The result of the projection was eight ounces, lacking eleven grains, of the most pure gold. Van Helmont conducted his own search for the Prima Materia, rejecting Paracelsus’s idea of the TRIA PRIMA and the four Elements of Aristotle. He undertook an experiment with a willow tree that convinced him that water was the prima materia for plants. Van Helmont planted a willow shoot, weighing both it and the soil. After five years of watering and tending it, he uprooted the willow and weighed it and the soil. The 164-pound gain of the tree led him to his conclusion about water. He further concluded that water was the prima materia for all things on the planet. Van Helmont investigated claims of alchemical feats, including an Irishman named Butler who was imprisoned in the Castle of Vilvord in Flanders. Butler reportedly made miraculous cures with his alchemical knowledge and some stone (Red Powder) he had obtained in Arabia. Butler’s story was that he had been traveling aboard a ship that was overtaken by pirates, and he was sold into slavery to a master of alchemy in Arabia. Thus he learned the art and stole some of the stone when he escaped. At the Castle of Vilvord, Butler was said to cure another prisoner, a Breton monk who suffered from severe erysipelas, with almond milk in which he had dipped the stone. Intrigued, van Helmont and several noblemen visited Butler to investigate his abilities. They witnessed him cure an old woman of “megrim” by dipping the stone into olive oil 328 van Helmont, Jean Baptista and then anointing her head. They also relieve her abbess of paralyzed fingers and a swollen tongue—which she had suffered for 18 years—by rubbing her tongue with the stone. See also BOYLE, ROBERT; STARKEY, GEORGE.


“Alchemy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Available online. URL: arr09.htm. Downloaded December 31, 2004. Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.



The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy  Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.