Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The breaking of the vessels

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In his famous Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defines chemistry as “an art whereby sensible bodies contained in vessels, or capable of being contained therein, are so changed, by means of certain instruments, and principally fire, that their several powers and virtues are thereby discovered, with a view to philosophy, or medicine.” As his source, Johnson cites the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, who writes in Elements of Chemistry, a textbook that was first published in the early eighteenth century:

Chemistry is an art that teaches us how to perform certain physical operations, by which bodies that are discernible by the senses, or that may be rendered so, and that are capable of being contained in vessels, may by suitable instruments be so changed, that particular determined effects may be thence produced, and the causes of those effects understood by the effects themselves, to the manifold improvement of various arts…The objects, in observing or changing of which this art is conversant, are all sensible bodies…especially if they are naturally capable of being contained in vessels, or by the power of this art, may be so changed, as to be confined within.

As a nineteenth-century professor and science writer named T. Berry Smith rather poetically explains: “The moon, though a sensible body, is no object of chemistry, for it is not capable of being contained in vessels.”

I was charmed enough by this definition to want to learn more about Boerhaave, whose biography Johnson wrote up as a young man in four issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Boerhaave is best remembered today for his work as a teacher and for his isolation of the chemical urea from urine, but in Johnson’s hands, he becomes a kind of early superscience hero in whom physical strength is inseparable from mental ability:

Boerhaave [was] a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletic constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius…The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor foreseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a line that seems to anticipate Sherlock Holmes, or at least Dr. Joseph Bell: “He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men’s inclinations and capacity by their aspect.”

There’s a lot of Johnson himself in this description, which, as the writer Paul Fussell points out, is really about a combined figure whom “we can only call Boerhaave-Johnson.” Boerhaave is never mentioned by name in The Life of Johnson, but its subject was intensely interested in chemistry, as Boswell observed during a visit to his library: “I observed an apparatus for chymical experiments, of which Johnson was all his life very fond.” He also conflated his own physical strength with his intelligence, as we see in some of the stories that Boswell recounts:

Many instances of [Johnson’s] resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit.

In his later essays, Johnson mentions Boerhaave only a couple of times, most notably in a discussion of clearly defining one’s terms, in which he praises the chemist for not assuming any previous knowledge on the part of his readers. This impulse found its greatest expression in the Dictionary, in which we can glimpse Boerhaave—a friend and early supporter of Carl Linnaeus, who took this project to its ultimate level—in its determination to confine everything in the world to its own proper vessel. And Boerhaave seems to have remained Johnson’s ideal of what a man might accomplish. In Young Sam Johnson, James L. Clifford writes:

One might almost piece together a picture of Johnson as he saw himself, or as he hoped to be, from selected passages in the life of Boerhaave—a man whose fortune had not been “sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned eduction,” but who through sheer determination had broken through “the obstacles of poverty.” Always it was Boerhaave’s “insatiable curiosity after knowledge” that had driven him on. Though subject to depression and lowness of spirits, yet “he asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures.” He had a large, robust physique and was remarkable for physical strength…The vigor and activity of his mind “sparkled visibly in his eyes,” and “he was always cheerful and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation.”

At one point in his biography of Boerhaave, Johnson writes in a revealing aside: “It is, I believe, a very just observation that men’s ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity.” The real vessel, in short, is the individual human being. And great accomplishment only occurs in lives that are big enough to contain it.

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