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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 July; 54(3): 400–402.
PMCID: PMC2889460

Book Reviews

Boyle: between God and science
Reviewed by Rose-Mary Sargent

Michael Hunter.
Boyle: between God and science,  New Haven and London,  Yale University Press,  2009, pp.  xiii, 366, illus., £25.00, $55.00 (hardback  978-0-300-12381-4). 

Hunter has admirably accomplished his aim of providing “in a single volume a comprehensive view of Boyle’s life from his birth on 25 January 1627 to his death on the night of 30–1 December 1691” (p. 8). Insights gleaned from studies of Robert Boyle over the past twenty-five years, cited in an extensive bibliographical essay, have been brought together with additional new material from Hunter’s exhaustive work on the Boyle archive as well as from the letters, diaries, and manuscripts of many of Boyle’s family members and associates. By doing so, Hunter has been able to fill in many of the gaps and correct the mistakes found in the previous main sources for the details of Boyle’s life, Thomas Birch’s Life (London, 1744, 1772) and R E W Maddison’s The life of the Hon. Robert Boyle, F.R.S. (London, 1969). Boyle’s works in medicine, chemistry, the mechanical and experimental philosophy, religion, and morality are woven together in a chronological narrative to show how they relate to the different phases of his life.

Chapters 1–4 cover Boyle’s childhood, including his father’s expectations and his mother’s death when he was only three. Hunter argues that while these circumstances contributed to Boyle’s diffidence and contemplative life, his lavish upbringing, as indicated by the expenses recorded for his clothing by his father, the great Earl of Cork, contributed to what Hunter finds to be Boyle’s sense of “innate superiority” (p. 27). After covering his early years in Ireland and at his future estate at Stalbridge, Hunter adds new details about Boyle’s grand tour, particularly concerning his lengthy stay in Geneva. Hunter notes that it was Boyle’s time in Geneva, as well as his subsequent reunion with his sister Katherine, Lady Ranelagh, upon his return to London, that were crucial for the formation of his moral and theological views.

Chapters 5–9 cover the start of Boyle’s scientific career that began in earnest during his twelve-year residence at Oxford. Influenced by his well-known associates there, as well as by the Baconian schemes of the London-based Hartlib Circle, Boyle began an extensive and eclectic experimentally based research programme that led to numerous draft manuscripts for the works that he published in the early 1660s, including histories of Colour and Cold, and his essays on the Usefulness of natural philosophy, and Certain physiological essays. It was here that he also composed Spring of the air wherein he recounted numerous experiments with his newly constructed air pump. Left unpublished from this period was the polemical ‘Doubts touching the vulgar method of physic’ that expressed his opposition to the Galenic regime (p. 162).

Chapters 10–14 cover Boyle’s London period that began in 1668. The first three chapters recount his involvement with the East India Company, the New England Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company that was motivated in part by his desire for information from foreign lands and in part by his missionary zeal. Hunter also devotes a chapter to Boyle’s interests in magic, the mystical side of alchemy, and witchcraft that includes his unfortunate adventures with Georges Pierre, the self-proclaimed Patriarch of Antioch.

Readers of Medical History will be most interested in the final two chapters in this section that cover the period 1683–91, when Boyle returned to his manuscript on the ‘Vulgar method of physic’ and now argued that Galenic therapy was actually harmful (p. 209). Boyle continued to refrain from publishing this work, Hunter argues, because of the hostility that doctors expressed toward chemical medicine as well as the respect that he had for their bedside manner, which he knew well from his association with such medical practitioners as Thomas Sydenham. Instead of his polemic, Boyle published treatises showing how his experimental philosophy could be used to make improvements in medicine. These included his Natural history of the blood (1684), Reconciliation of specific medicines and the corpuscular philosophy (1685), and Medicina hydrostatic (1690). Boyle urged the Galenists to reform their practice by incorporating experimental techniques—using specific gravity, for example, to determine the purity of the ingredients in their medicinal remedies. Chapter 14 covers the last three years of Boyle’s life and provides details pertaining to the first volume of Boyle’s Medicinal experiments that included numerous medical recipes to be used by the colonists in New England. After Boyle’s death, John Locke saw the work through the final stages of publication and subsequently published two more volumes of his recipes over the next two years.

Although Hunter does not provide analyses of Boyle’s experimental works, his detailed timeline of Boyle’s life (that includes a table of his whereabouts in a helpful appendix) provides a valuable tool for situating the social and intellectual contexts within which he produced his work. Hunter’s volume thus becomes a crucial text for all who wish to study Boyle’s contributions to seventeenth-century natural philosophy.

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