Prior to 1800, science and medicine were as much as part of Huguenot philosophy as was religion and philosophy.  The natural sciences had an advantage over medicine in Huguenot culture due to  transitions taking place in medicine, religion, medical findings, and the decisions made about the values of these discoveries by such important religious leaders as  . . .

Science was very much an exploration of nature to some special groups, and the French Protestants were perhaps one of these groups.  Unlike their adversaries in French social politics, the French Roman Catholics, the French Protestants were more open to interpretations of the Bible that failed to accept many of the classical, traditional teachings of the body held so firmly to by Catholic culture.  The story of the Great Flood was the primary example of this from about 1530 to 1630 in religion and Huguenot history.   The traditional Catholic take on this part of Genesis is that is happened.  To the Huguenots, it was more a story with important messages and symbolic meaning, but not anything to get in the way of new discoveries being made.

There was a sort of common senseness about this take on the Bible’s stories that the Huguenots (and many other religions) possessed.  The Bible was written word.  Nature had offerings as well that were “written in stone,” fossils.  Unlike Moses, whose words in stone came directly to him from G-d, to the scientists, naturalists, natural philosophers, and as shown in the previous writing, artisans like Pallisey, the words written in stone were God’s messages to us open to personal and philosophical interpretations.  There was no hidden message to be uncovered in these depictions of both living and dead animals and plants.  The fact that they merely existed meant there was something else taking place that was very different from what was happoening now in the same place.  Some of these fossils told us that in the past, this piece of land situated well avbove sea level, even into the highest mountains, was once below water, not due to the Great Flood, but due to worldly changes that took place in some very different fashion.

There are several ways one can as a natural philosopher look towards nature for the Creator’s messages.  This is the belief that some botanists had inwardly, a philosophy never expressed in their scientific writings, only by the nature of their discoveries.  Jean Ribault, during his attempts to set up a new village and fort setting in what is now Jacksonville, Florida, had a very different interpretation of the wilderness around him than his neighbors in New Spain.  Ribault was so close to New Spain in fact, that to the Spaniards residing just across the peninsula, he was invading their colony.  While Ribault resided down in this territory, he had on occasion come upon some Native groups and some Native philosophies.  He was also approached at times by Anglicans with a slightly different point of view on the territorial possessions then being defined.  Ribault a Huguenot, had a different interpretation of the meaning of his settlement to people and life in general.  To the British, this was simple another place for the Brits to claim and settle down upon with a fort, a place where the valuable products of nature were more important commercially so long as any economic gain attributed to them made it worth their efforts. 

For example, Sassafras, the miracle cure for the time from this region, was so hidden from British knowledge of its identity and whereabouts that at least once they went to Ribault to find out where this important miracle plant could be found.  Ribault told them, and soon after the British began to market their cure for Syphilis with the help of their Queen.  For the time, the Huguenots had yet to pay more attention to God’s gifts to them in the form of flora, but all of this was about to change.

By 1626, Guy de La Brosse, doctor to Louis XIII, made an important contribution to the contributions the Huguenots made to medicine and science.  LeBrosse was put in charge of the Royal Garden or Jardin Royale.  La Brosse produced a descriptive booklet about this place entitled “Dessin du Jardin Royal pour la culture des plantes médicinales” (“Design of the Royal Garden for the culture of medical plants”).  Over the next several years this writing was republished several more times, the later editions with five supplementary woodcuts.

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

More importantly, LaBrosse was not only a botanist, but also an early chemist practicing what had essentially become a unique form of apothecary science with the new and modern ways of interpreting chemistry serving as the replacement for the increasingly esoteric science of alchemy.

Nicolas Lemery (1645-1715)

The influences of French science and scientists went well beyond the simple medical garden setting by the end of the 17th century. There was this underlying theory prevailing in much of medicine on and off throughout the 1600s and about to peak by the mid 1700s.  It was the theory of vitalism or life energy.

Vitalism is not a unique concept to any cultural tradition per se.  It is very much akin to the theory of yin and yang and chi related to the human body, health and life.   But it is also  a theory with enough complexity for a variety of versions to be developed, each with its own sublayers of parts needed to form this new version of the fire being redefined, and then defining its particular pathways through the body, detailing how it relates to the heart, the mind, and the soul. 

Just how the universe is constructed often forms a crucial part of this theory.   If the universe was constructed based solely upon physical matter, in some sort of mechanistic way, there is no explanation for the life process other than to say it is the result of some unique entity that rellay little is known about.  In the purist sense, a strong follower of religion might there for say that life is due to the soul, and that once the body is no longer capable of retaining the soul, or in such a state that the soul can no longer exist in the corpus, that the souls simply being a being of its own, leaves this container it has resided in behind. 

To some philosophers this might seem like a very strange thing for a soul to do.  This means that the soul spends all of its time in some physical construct of nature, residing in harmony with this natural work of art, assisting it in its day to day life processes, but allowing for some changes to be made.  The body this soul is in naturally ages.  ‘What is it that makes the body age?’ is one question these natural philosophers had a hard time reckoning with.  Why would the soul occupy a body, assist in its growth and maturation, guiding it through its experiences, and yet still let that body age to such an extent that this soul has to inevitably leave the body behind once all of this work is done?

This dichotomy left many in the more intellectual community wondering just what was it that they believed in.  The general tendency in religion during the 16th and 17th century of these events of change in science was that the duality of life and soul was true.  Descartianism in combination with the basic Ptolomeiac traditions often remained the focus of the Catholic world, with Earth and Man representing the center of the universe and God there watching over each and every one of us.  The main evidence for this, we depend on the sun and its light and heat to survive, with God as the creator and initiator, but not neccessarily the continuing perpetrator and cause for these ongoing events.

Even though Galileo accomplished plenty to mess up this traditional piece of Catholic philosophy, to good-minded Christians one could still accept the rearrangement of the sun, the planets, and the stars proposed by Galileo, so long as Earth and Man remained the focus of God’s being and existence. Atheism and that which would later be known as Nihilism were unacceptable beliefs. The initial philosophy of existentialism, which was purely non-relational in nature with some philosophy ascribing cause for creation, a humanistic cause, and Erasmus Darwinian philosophy, which put nature in charge of us by way of adaptation processes (only long necked giraffes will survive), would each ultimately give way the non-theologically based logic to existence thinking promoted after 1850 by Charles Darwin. Theologians probably felt they won out once the religios, more humanist interpretation of this process came to be–the reintroduction of God’s power as the cause for many of these changes.

Of course there were a large number of people who didn’t want to adhere to God-centered part of the Catholic tradition.  The Calvinists in particular took a different point of view about God and Nature and had their own philosophy as to how and why God existed, but was no longer a part of our daily life experience.  Calvinists claimed that now that the universe is going, it has this way of naturally retaining its vitality and ability to undergo change on its own, without the need for God’s constant repairs, resetting of gauges, and rewinding of the springs  that enabled these changes to continue.  Nicolas Lemery’s contribution to this aspect of science was related to his ability to take the chemistry theories that previous scientists like Boerhaave helped to construct, and assign more order and meaning to it.  Vitalism and vital energy could be explained by taking a chemical approach to better understanding nature and the natural sciences.

As a child, Nicolas Lemery was Protestant, a religious practice he was born into due as a child of Protestant attorney Julien Lemery.  Julien Lemery served in the Parlement of Normandy until 1656 when he died.    Around 1660, Lemery became an apprentice apothecary to his uncle Pierre Duchemin in Rouen.   Six years later, he moved to Paris to become a student of Christopher Glaser, a demonstrator in chemistry for Jardin du Roi. Lemery departed from this position just  two months later, and like others for the time began a six-year period of travel and study, in search of a new career.  During this period in life he spent some of his time in Lyons, Geneva and finally Montpellier from 1668 to 1670, where he resided with Protestant master apothecary, Henri Verchant.  This led him to become a student of pharmacy in Montpellier in 1670 and began attending courses on “simples” (drugs) and anatomy taught at the Faculty of Medicine.  By teaching some of Verchant’s students his knowledge of chemistry, members of the medical faculty and other notables of the town became very familiar with his skills as a chemist.  By 1672, Lemery was in Paris associating with the household of Louis, prince of Condé (le Grand Condé). where he received additional training under the prince’s physician Abbé Bourdelot and worked in the laboratory of the prince’s apothecary Bernadin Martin.   These important connections led him to purchase the office of apothecary to the king and grand prévôt of France in 1674. 

Most importantly, the above events circumvented any legal obstacles Lemery had as a Protestant seeking admission to the guild of apothecaries of Paris.  During the next seven years he established a highly successful pharmaceutical business, specializing in patent medicines. In addition, he gained a considerable reputation as a teacher of chemistry by his private courses. These courses not only catered to the professional needs of pharmacy apprentices but also attracted a large audience from fashionable Parisian society interested in semipopular scientific expositions. The textbook of his course, the Cours de chymie (1675), enjoyed unprecedented success for such a work, selling, as Fontenelle comments, like a work of romance or satire.

During the last quarter of the 17th century, Nicolas Lemery had a lab where he performed experiments.  In the course of his career as a scientist and teacher, he wrote the book Cours de Chymie (1675).  About twenty years later, he had published his Pharmacopée universelle (1699) and the Traité des drogues simples (1698).  It was during these mid to later years of his life that his naturalist interpretation of  life and religion converted fully to catholicism, and his philosophy on the mechanisms of a chemical existence took hold of his philosophy, enabling him to remove himself from any Parracelsian-Helmontian way of interpreting things that were previously dominating in the sciences, enabling the iatromechanical ways of interpreting disease and health to begin to prevail. 

To ensure his stability in the field of apothecary, Lemery made a political decision and converted to Coatholicism.  There is a strong possibility that Lemery’s conversion to Catholicism came as a direct result of his desire to continue work in his field following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  Had he remained Protestant, he would have lost all of his rights as a scientist and teacher at the University of Caen in Paris.  His conversion took place sometime around 1686, and lasted for the rest of his life.  He died in 1715.

A new and fairly complex, abstract theory with hints of Newtonianism was the developed by Lemery. Lemery introduced to his readers his explanation for chemical reactions in terms of particle shape and movement on an ad hoc basis, a variation of the very old atomic theory, which was appealing to the naive empiricism which stressed the visual imagination, bolstered in some instances by recently published accounts of microscopic observations. Thus the best way to explain the nature of salts, according to Lemery, is to attribute shapes to their constituent particles which best answer to all the effects they produce. Acid salts must have sharp pointed particles because of their sharp taste and, even more convincingly, because they solidify in the form of sharp pointed crystals. Contrariwise, alkalis are composed of earthy solid particles whose interstitial pores are so shaped as to admit entry of the spiked particles of acid. For reaction to take place between a particular acid and alkali, there must be an appropriate relationship between the size of the acid spikes and alkaline pores. Effervescence is produced in some acid-alkaline reactions by the expulsion of fire particles entrapped in the pores of the alkalis. Lemery also deduced the shapes of particles from the alleged physiological action of chemical substances in conformity with then current iatrophysical doctrines.

As a common origin for all salts Lemery suggests the fossil or gem salt (common salt) which is formed from an acid liquor flowing in veins in the earth. The acid liquor insinuates itself into the pores of stones and after concoction for several years forms this primogenital salt. All salts are derived from this fossil salt, with the exception of saltpeter, which derives its acidity directly from acid particles in the atmosphere. He tentatively suggests, however, that the acid liquor responsible for the formation of fossil salt may derive its acidity, like saltpeter, from the acid particles in the atmosphere. Vegetable salts in their turn are derived from terrestrial salt by absorption into the plant. Lemery’s discussion of vegetable salts leads him to an interesting critique of analysis by fire. He recognizes three species of vegetable salt: the acid or essential salt crystallized directly from the juice of plants; the volatile alkaline salt produced by distilling macerated and fermented seeds and fruits; and the alkaline fixed salt derived from the ashes of combusted plant materials. Of the three, only the first type is preexistent in plants; the other two are products of the action of fire. In discussing the production of the alkaline volatile salt of plants by heating, Lemery concludes that it must be admitted that fire destroys and confounds most things which it dissects, and there is no occasion to believe that it yields substances in their natural state. The probity of fire as a tool in vegetable analysis became a subject of much discussion and debate in the Academy of Science in Lemery’s lifetime and subsequently.

Lemery, however, was not disposed to renounce analysis by fire entirely: he still finds a place in his chemistry for the five iatrochemical principles of salt, sulfur, mercury, water, and earth based on fire analysis. His retention of these principles reveals a curious tension in Lemery’s chemistry between his innovative mechanist approach and its traditional iatrochemical framework. He states that he would like to believe that these principles are found in all mixt bodies: they cannot be separated so readily from minerals, and not even two of them can be extracted from gold and silver. Consequently, in spite of his initial discussion of them, the principles play a limited role in his subsequent exposition. Nevertheless, he is insistent that experimentally determined principles have a place in chemistry as an antidote to purely hypothetical mechanical theories of matter—one must proceed from the demonstrable products of chemical analysis to the shapes of particles and not vice versa. In spite of the drift of his arguments, Lemery, however, is unable or unwilling to formulate a new set of empirically determined principles based on a wider range of analysis than that of fire.

Some of this theory would later penetrate the philosophy and science of medicine as a practice of iatrochemical nature, promoted by famous Dutch scientists but converted to Vitalism by popular writers like Theophilis Borden.  This particular metaphysical view of matter enabled physicians, and even common people read in this particular piece of science, to begin to imagine how the universe, although constructed by God, was now pretty much on its own journey within the cosmos when it came to engaging in all future events on its own, in accordance with natural laws, including  those laws invented and adopted by chemists.  About this time there was also a philosophy of atomism surfacing in science, promoted by Gassendi.

(Note: the Fishkill revolutionary war doctor I reviewed so extensively elsewhere on this site believed and cited Lemery’s work in his vase medium or recipe book.)

Louis Lemery

The Protestant faith made its contributions to chemistry in an indirect way through Nicolas Lemery.   The chemistry Lemery promoted was very much mechanistic in nature, based on a philosophy that better aligned with the Catholic belief system for science.  Nicolas Lemery used his knowledge of chemistry to explain some of the natural events of life, such as the cause of storms and thunder and lightning due to sulphur-iron interactions taking place in nature.  Nicolas Lemery had two sons, Louis Lemery (Lemery le fils, 1677-1743), and Jacques Lemery (Lemery le jeune, 1677/1678-1721), both of whom became members of the Academy.  Louis Lemery succeeded his father as a chemist and took on the position of chimiste pensionnaire in 1715.  The younger son remained an associate of the Academy from 1715, publishing several memoirs on phosphorus before his early death, but we hear little more about him.

Louis Lemery’s most important contribution, outside his very scientific approach to describing the art of cooking, was his philosophy on the five iatrochemical principles–salt, sulfur, mercury, water, and earth. His definition of these was based upon his study of the most crucial galenic humour or element or form of energy related to alchemy, or in Louis’s case cooking, the analysis of fire.

French Huguenot Foodways

The following appeared in Louis Lemery’s A Treatise of All Sorts of Foods, Both Animal and Vegetable, in the section “Of Foods prepared of Animals”, p. 168:   

“Tho’ the Foods prepared of Vegetables were of themselves sufficient for the Support of Human Life, and that ’tis likely Men were content therewith in the first Age of the World, as has been observed elsewhere; yet they did not long confine themselves within such Rules of Moderation; they had not only the Cruelty to deprive Animals of their Milk and Eggs, but they pursu’d these poor Creatures into their most hidden Recesses, in order to kill and eat them; insomuch that the swiftest Birds, and the Fish in the deep Waters have not been able to escape their Insults.”

 This is taken by some to be one of the earliest promotions of vegetarianism.

Nicolas Lemery



The Loss of Calvinists, but not their Knowledge

The reversal of the Edict of Nantes resulted in the removal of important knowledge from the Catholic world in 1685.  These losses were barely noticed at first, but as time passed and science and medicine became further developed in shape and form, the Protestant interpretation of the spark of life began to rule over the Catholic point of view.

Once again, we see numerous bits and pieces of evidence pointing to the influence of metaphysical philosophy and tradition upon Hudson Valley traditions and beliefs.

When the Huguenots made their way to the New World, some brought with them the intellectual skills of the most elite of scientists and engineers to exist in Europe.  In particular there were a large number of trade skills the Huguenots possessed that came to play important roles in the occupations they took on or supported in the local settings for decades to come. My study of Dr. Cornelius Osborn, whose wife Helena Parmentier was from one of the most famous Dutchess County Huguenot families, provides with an example of how Western European culture and history tried to extinguish the knowledge and traditions of another ethnic group, unsuccessfully due to value of its leaders’ discoveries. The multicultural tendency of Dutch governed territories and nations enabled this to happen in the Hudson Valley of New Netherlands, not the English dominated settlements back home, or in the Colonies, or in New York.

In Hudson Valley history we rarely read much about the types of occupations the Huguenots had.  We know from legal documents that they served as Justices .  We rarely read about anything to do with such needed skills and practices like glass-blowing or drug-making.

In the Documents of New York series by O’Callaghan there is a single entry pertaining to a member of the Parmentier family, a Huguenot family, in which the surviving wife is legally provided the rights to sole practice of the production of lamp black, the soot obtained from oil lamps then used to produce a black ink for pens and as a dye for coloring various surfaces such as metals and leather.   (The other source for this color for the time, roasted crushed ivory chips, produced a deep brownish black called ivory black.). A review of philosophy, medicine a health teaches us that the Huguenots were worth more to this region than just as a source for legal administration, court operations, providing a place to stay for a passer-by afflicted with measles (noted in Ulster County court records), the laying on of hands for the cure (ditto, to be reviewed on another page) or the production of Lampblack.

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