Michael Bycroft

Chemical Experts: the Analysis of Mineral Waters at the Académie Royale of Sciences, c. 1665-1750

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675)

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675)*

Mineral waters were an ancient cure that gained a new lease of life in the early modern period. From Baden to Bath and from Spa to Scarborough, mineral springs were a popular destination for anyone willing the pay the costs of transport, treatment and bodily discomfort that were typical accompaniments of a spell at a spa. In the case that interests me—France—the fashion for mineral waters arrived from Italy and England in the late sixteenth century and grew steadily over the next two centuries. According to their promoters, mineral waters cured everything from infertility to speechlessness. Many took these claims with a pinch of salt, but many more took their chances by bathing or showering in mineral springs, drinking the waters at their source, or consuming bottled water in the comfort of their own homes.

In France as elsewhere, mineral waters were not the sole preserve physicians and entrepreneurs. They also caught the attention of chemists and natural philosophers, and hence of historians of science. It is now half a century since Allen Debus argued that there was a long tradition of studying mineral waters that pre-dated Robert Boyle and that formed the basis for chemists’ knowledge of reactions in solution up to the end of the eighteenth century. Historians of chemistry have fleshed out this thesis with reference to chemists such as Friedrich Hoffman, Peter Shaw, and Antoine Lavoisier. At the same time, historians of medicine have uncovered new details about who took mineral waters in the early modern period, how they took them, and what this practice meant for medical theory and for the relationship between doctors and their patients.

Notes on mineral waters taken down by the chemist Jean Hellot, c. 1750

This literature covers many countries and periods, but one important context has fallen through the cracks: the early decades of the Parisian Académie Royale des Sciences. Mineral waters were a staple of academic research from the founding of the institution in 1665 to the middle of the eighteenth century. Several of the Academy’s leading chemists in this period—including Samuel Duclos, Claude Bourdelin, Gilles-Francois Boulduc, Claude-Joseph Geoffroy, René Réaumur, Charles Dufay, and Jean Hellot—either carried out experiments on mineral waters or collected data about them.

A study of this tradition can help to answer several questions about French science in this period and about early modern medical trials. The first of these is the now-familiar question of whether, and in what ways, the study of mineral waters informed chemical theories. The second question has not yet been asked about analyses of mineral waters: how were the results of medical trials recorded by those who observed them? The laboratory notes taken down by Claude Bourdelin are of particular interest because they nearly all survive and because historians have not yet studied their form (as opposed to their content). Finally, what were the practical consequences of the analyses carried out by members of the Academy? In particular, how did physicians and spa-owners respond to the methods and results propounded by academicians, and what role did academicians play in policing the medical use of mineral waters? In answering this question I hope to shed light on the rise of the Academy as a body of “hybrid experts”: scientists who had one foot in the laboratory and the other in the world of affairs.


* The manuscripts of Jean Hellot conserved at the Caen Libarary were digitised as part of the ANR/DFG Euroscientia programme, on the initiative of Isabelle Laboulais, professor of modern history at the University of Strasbourg. The above image of a manuscript is published here exceptionally with the agreement of the Caen Library and the University of Strasbourg.

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