|Jean Baptista van Helmont|
(8, page 260)
Up until this time the works of Galen were considered the gold standard in medicine. Science wasn't needed, because every thing any physician could possibly need to know about any disease, asthma included, was in one of Galen's books
This started to change when the dark ages ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This is believed by many historians to have ended the dark ages and sparked a Renaissance where lost Greek and Roman wisdom was recaptured.
It was in 1514 that Galen's reign as supreme master and god of medical superstitions took a major hit. This was the year Nicolaus Copernicus was questioning the belief that the Earth was the center of the Universe and started writing his theories about the earth rotating the sun. Out of fear of being rejected and perhaps even killed by the church, his works weren't published until eight years after his death in 1543.
This was a time when fresh ideas that were based on science as opposed to superstitions and false logic. New ideas were formed in physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and medicine.
Copernicus was the first to use scientific research as opposed to superstitions in science, and it was Galileo Galilei who risked everything to use scientific reason and publish his works during his lifetime.
Galilei became famous, and because of this he is now called the father of modern science. He set the way for others to question old scientific and medical superstitions that were regarded as facts, and one such physician was Jean Baptiste Van Helmont, who, in 1579, was born into the dawn of the Scientific Revolution.
Van Helmont was born into a noble family and worked to obtain a degree at Leuven. Fielding Hudson Garrison, in his history of medicine, notes that before he studied medicine he spent some time as a Capuchin friar. (8, page 260) According to Wikepedia he studied various sciences, but what ended up gaining his interest was medicine. He interrupted his studies for three years while he traveled to Switzerland, Italy, France and England, and became a physician in 1599, and in 1609 he received his doctoral degree in medicine. (1)
That same year, 1609, he married Margaret van Ranst, who came from a wealthy family. He and his new wife lived in Vilvoorde near Brussels, and had six or seven children. The inheritance of his wife allowed van Helmont to retire from medicine early. (1)
According to bookrags.com he gained fame from his travels and experiences, and was ultimately offered many "attractive jobs", yet in 1609 he turned down all these jobs and "devoted himself to pure research on the principles of nature." (2)
bookrags.com notes that in many ways he followed the teachings of Swiss physician Paracelsus who lived from 1493 to 1541. Yet unlike Paracelsus, van Helmont did not believe in the Ancient Greek theory that all that ails the human body was due to an imbalance of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. (2)
Garrison explains van Helmont this way:
Like his master, Paracelsus, van Helmont believed that each material process of the body is presided over by a special archaeus, or spirit (which he calls Bias), and that these physiologic processes are in themselves purely chemical, being due in each case to the agency of a special ferment (or Gas). Each Gas is an instrument in the hands of its special Bias, while the latter are presided over by a sensory-motive soul (anima sensitiva motivaque), which van Helmont locates in the pit of the stomach, since a blow in that region destroys consciousness.He believed the basic element on the earth was water and he performed experiments to try to prove this. He grew a tree in a tub for five years and gave it nothing but pure water. He weighed the tree and soil before the experiments, and in the end the soil weighed the same and the tree had gained 160 pounds. He attributed the weight gain of the tree as being due to water. (2)
Bookrags notes that he may have come to the wrong conclusion in the end, yet due to his experiment he is sometimes referred to as the father of biochemistry. (2)
The physician is mentioned in many respiratory therapy books because of his experiments with gases, and it's due to these experiments that he is often referred to as the father of pneumatic (air) science as well. He was the first to propose that air was one of many substances, and he coined the term "gases" to describe other substances besides air. The word "gas" comes from the Greek word for chaos. (3)
One of his most famous experiments was when he burned charcoal and produced the substance carbon dioxide. He explained this was the same product produced from fermenting musk, which rendered the air inside caves as unbreathable. Yet at that time he did not use the word carbon dioxide, he used instead the word gas sylvestre. (3)
He also described other gases, such as carbon monoxide, chlorine gas (later used as an asthma medicine), digestive gases, sulfer dioxide, and a "vital" gas in the blood that we now refer to as oxygen.
It's also interesting to note that van Helmont was also an asthmatic, and it may have been for this reason he found his interest in medicine and scientific research. Later in his life he studied the lungs, and he became the first to dismiss the idea that asthma was a disease caused by an imbalance of the humors and instead was a disease caused by a narrowing of the pipes in the lungs. (3)
However, while he described bronchospasm accurately, he also concluded in his research that asthma was, much like Hippocrates described, "epilepsy of the lungs." Helmont went further and concluded that epilepsy of the lungs was caused hysteria (by the mind), the same as epilepsy was caused by hysteria. In this way, he was probably the first to view asthma as a nervous or psychosomatic disorder. (3)
It is epilepsy in the lungs in that it is "latent for long periods, only to provoke on special occasions attacks of contraction that chiefly concern one organ; in this case the lungs, in real epilepsy the nervous system." 4, page 176)
His hysterical or nervous theory of medicine was later given credence by 19th century physicians and sent doctors and researchers and scientists on a major sidetrack that may have been been a major reason why no adequate advances were made in asthma treatment until the discovery of adrenaline in 1901.
Yet he generally believed that while asthma was a physical disease of the lungs, it was caused by factors outside the lungs, particularly the mind. Yet he also had another interesting theory, that: (7, page 27)
"Archeus"—a something—a vital spirit—was enshrined in the stomach, and when disturbed, was responsible for disease by sending forth a peculiar fluid, which, reaching the lungs, caused asthma.The physical ailment is in the lungs, "where the poison attacks directly, where they are produced as at a specific seat." Yet while this is true, his observations of things like barrel chest and catarrh told him the disease affected the rest of the body. (4, page 176)
He adds, "To that extent asthma (as indeed every other disease) is a local and localized affair. Its poison irritates in the same way cantharides do, and is essentially identical with the poison of epilepsy, but not strong enough to produce the latter." (4)
Van Helmont also became the first to observe based on scientific research that the lungs responded poorly to dust and even fish. He discovered these triggers caused the lungs in some individuals to contract and, thus, dust and fish were proven to bring on an asthma attack. (3)
Yet it was due to his studies on the lungs that he ended up clashing with the church. He once described a monk who fell down after eating fish because he was deprived of breathing "so that he was scarce distinguished from a strangled man." This concept was contrary to the beliefs of the church that an imbalance of humors was the cause of disease. He was condemned to death until he recanted. (5, page?)
He was basically kept under house arrest for several years, and because many of his beliefs differed from the officials at the schools he worked for, and from the church, that he did not publish any of his works. Instead, on his deathbed, he gave his works to his son to edit and publish. Only then did we learn what else was up in his elustrious mind. (5, page)
Perhaps due successful and strict rules of the Church, most of van Helmont's contemporaries dogmatically held on to old superstitions, and so much of what van Helmont wrote about, and what else may have been on his mind, what else he may have discovered, we may never know.
- Wikepedia (will find a better reference soon)
- bookrags.com (better reference pending)
- Reference pending
- Pagan, Walter, "Joan Baptista Van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine," 1982, UK, Cambridge University Press, a good starting place is page 176
- Brenner, Barry E, "Emergency Medicine," 1999
- Nulan, Sherwin B, "The mysteries within: a surgeon explores myth, medicine and the human body," a good starting place is 216
- Brown, Orville Harry, "Asthma, presenting an
- Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 1921, 3rd edition, Philadelphia and London, W.B Saunders Company
- Nulan, Sherwin B, "The mysteries within: a surgeon explores myth, medicine and the human body," a good starting place is 216 where Nulan describes van Helmont's archeus and