'A thing ridiculous'? Chemical medicines and the prolongation of human life in seventeenth-century England
Sir Francis Bacon explored as a medical question the issue of how human life spans might be returned to the near-thousand years enjoyed by Adam and the Patriarchs. Extended old age seemed feasible: reports told of people living well into their centenary. Meanwhile, New World natives were said to live for several hundred years. The boundaries of old age in the seventeenth century were inconclusive, and the hope that life could be prolonged for decades beyond the allotted eighty years was a serious question. In 1633, one doctor observed that to “attaine to 100 is no wonder, having my selfe knowne some of both sexes”, but responding to the claims of Paracelsians asked, “is it not a thing ridiculous, now in these later times, to extend the life of man-kinde to 1000, 900, or at the least to 600 yeeres?” Comparing the reception of information extrapolated from Biblical sources, stories from distant lands, and the growing divide between philosophical and medico-scientific approaches, this paper looks at how “facts” about human longevity were received and employed by scholars and doctors during the course of the seventeenth century, and the emergence of a more “respectable” empirical chemistry from under the shade of alchemy.
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