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Daniel Sennert at the University of Wittenberg


Sennert portrait.
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Daniel Sennert (1572-1637) was Professor of Medicine at the University of Wittenberg until his death from plague in 1637. He was responsible for introducing chemical teaching into the medical curriculum at Wittenberg. Today he is perhaps best known for his writings on chymistry and Worth had a copy of his celebrated defence of chemistry: De chymicorum cum Aristotelicis et Galenicis consensu ac dissensu liber: cui accessit appendix de constitutione chymiae: autore Daniele Sennerto (Wittebergae, 1629). This work went through a number of editions and was later translated into English by Nicholas Culpeper and Abdiah Cole as Chymistry Made Easie and Useful. Or, The Agreement and Disagreement of the Chymists and Galenists (London, 1662). It was popular because it was an attempt to bridge the gap between the two warring factions of galenists and paracelsians, primarily by jettisoning the more occult parts of the paracelsian legacy and focusing on Paracelsus’ chemical experiments alone. Paracelsus’ tria prima of salt, sulphur and mercury were acceptable whereas the work of his follower Oswald Croll (whose Bazilica Chymica Worth also collected), was not. As Clericuzio argues (2000), for Sennert chemistry was an art rather than a science and one which was devoted to two things: ‘the extraction of essences from natural bodies to be used by physicians and the transmutation of metals’. The emphasis was on chemistry as a practical discipline.

Sennert is best known as one of the leading atomists of the first half of the seventeenth century and it was in De chymicorum that he set out his atomistic stall. As Newman (2006) demonstrates, he sought a middle path, attempting to reconcile Aristotle with Democritus by arguing that the theory of substantial forms could co-exist with an atomistic understanding of matter: the atoms in gold, for example, retained the substantial form of gold. Newman (2005) has also pointed to Robert Boyle’s silent use of Sennert’s theory of reductiones ad pristinum statum [reductions into the pristine state] and has shown how Boyle’s essay ‘Of the Atomicall Philosophy’ owed much to positions earlier outlined by Sennert. Here Boyle reproduced experiments undertaken by Sennert and utilised Sennert’s corpuscularian explanations. It was not his only work to owe a debt to Sennert: The Sceptical Chymist also used Sennert’s experiments of gold and silver in their pristine states – without acknowledgment. Boyle was not the only one to be bashful about his sources: as Newman (2006) points out, some of Sennert’s corpuscularian ideas owed much to the corpuscularian alchemical theory of the Summa perfectionis of the Pseudo-Geber (a text which Worth likewise collected).

Robert Boyle, The philosophical works (London, 1725), 3 vols, vol 2, plate V.



Clericuzio, Antonio (2000), Elements, Principles and Corpuscles. A Study of Atomism and Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century (Kluwer Academic Publishers).

Debus, Allen G. (2001), Chemistry and Medical Debate. Van Helmont to Boerhaave (Science History Publications).

Meinel, Christoph (1988), ‘Early Seventeenth-Century Atomism: Theory, Epistemology, and the Insufficiency of Experiment’, Isis, 79, no. 1, pp 68-103.

Michael, Emily (1997), ‘Daniel Sennert on Matter and Form: At the Juncture of the Old and the New’, Early Science and Medicine 2, no.3, The Fate of Hylomorphism. “Matter” and “Form” in Early Modern Science, pp 272-99.

Moran, Bruce T. (2005), Distilling Knowledge. Alchemy, Chemistry and the Scientific Revolution (Harvard University Press).

Newman, William R. and Principe, Lawrence M. (2005), Alchemy Tried in the Fire. Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (University of Chicago Press).

Newman, William R. (2006), ‘The alchemical sources of Robert Boyle’s corpuscular philosophy’, Annals of Science 53: 6, pp 567-85.

Newman, William R. (2006) Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press).

Pseudo-Geber (1682), Gebri Regis Arabum philosophi perspicacissmi summa perfectionis magisterii in sua natura cum libri investigationis magistarii et testamenti eijusdem Gebri ac aurei trium verborum libelli, & Avicennae mineralium additione castigatissima (Gdansk).

Sennert, Daniel, Culpeper, Nicholas and Cole, Abdiah (1662), Chymistry Made Easie and Useful. Or, The Agreement and Disagreement of the Chymists and Galenists (London).

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