Vital Matters project

Vital Matters

In three sub-projects on the physiology of the bodily fluids, Boerhaavian alchemy and Enlightenment neurology, an analysis is made of how Boerhaave’s Dutch followers made the vital principles of matter central to their medicine. Methodologically the present project leaves the well-trodden path of studying vitalism in the perspective of the history of ideas. It is innovative in bringing recent theories on the material aspects of scientific practices to the study of vitalism. In so doing the research offers a new perspective on Dutch Enlightenment science and culture. 

The Vital Matters project is funded by a NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) VIDI-grant awarded to Dr. Rina Knoeff, associate professor at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. You can contact her on For more information on the project, see the full project proposal

Project Team


Dr. Rina Knoeff, PI and associate professor

Chemistry and the Nerves 

Chemistry and the Nerves is the synthesizing project within the Vital Matters project (2012–present). It incorporates the results of the Passions of the SoulQuicksilver Doctors, and Blood, Sweat and Tears projects and is directed at studying the import of Herman Boerhaave’s insistence on chemical explorations of the nervous system. It analyses the rise of medical vitalism in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic in relation to Enlightenment culture.


Dr. James Kennaway, postdoc

Passions of the Soul

Dr James Kennaway is a Historian of Medicine with experience working at Oxford, Stanford, Vienna and Durham. He has previously written extensively on music and medicine, for instance in his monograph Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea as a Cause of Disease (2012). At Groningen he is working on the contribution of Dutch Enlightenment medicine and chemistry to thinking on the mind and the Passions of the Soul (2016–present).


Dr. Marieke Hendriksen, postdoc

Quicksilver Doctors

This project (2012–2015) is concerned with the materiality of the human body as well as with the materiality of substances (metals in particular) affecting the life and motion of the body. It is principally focused on the question of how the materiality of a substance was related to its supposed vital (and decidedly non-material) powers. Eighteenth-century alchemical materials – mainly metals – were considered particularly potent substances in medicine. Moreover, since alchemy has always involved both experimental practices and metaphorical meanings rooted in culture and society, the project seeks to analyse eighteenth-century alchemy as a (historically undervalued) part of broader Enlightenment thought.


Ruben Verwaal MA, PhD candidate

Blood, Sweat and Tears 

The central aim of this project (2013–present) is a description and analysis of the Boerhaavian physiology of the bodily fluids which was rooted in his chemistry of living things. It moves beyond the popular image of the body machine. Instead, through following the eighteenth-century focus on chemical explanations of the states and movements of the humours, the project describes the body as an assemblage of individually localized chemical procedures, physiological concerns and Enlightenment debate.


André Looijenga MA, research assistant

Students' Theses of the Boerhaavian School

André Looijenga MA was a research assistant within the Vital Matters project in 2014. He compiled a database containing the thesis titles of most of Boerhaave's students.

© 2017 Vital Matters – Dr. Rina Knoeff, University of Groningen