Van Helmont JB (1648)

Ortus medicinæ: Id est Initia physicæ inaudita. Progressus medicinae novus, in morborum ultionem, ad vitam longam [The dawn of medicine: That is, the beginning of a new Physic. A new advance in medicine, a victory over disease, to (promote) a long life]. Amsterodami: Apud Ludovicum Elzevirium, pp 526-527.
In the 17th century, the Flemish physician Jean-Baptiste van Helmont proposed casting lots to decide which patients should be treated by orthodox physicians with blood letting and purging, and which by him without these treatments.

Title page(s)

Key passage(s)


“For Medicine is no empty word, no fool’s boast, no vain speech: after the word is said the work remains to be done. In this matter I scorn abuse, the boasts of the ambitious and pitiful vanities. Come, let us return to the argument. If you speak the truth, you Schoolmen, that you are able to cure any kind of fever without purging but that you are not willing to do so for fear of a worse relapse, come down to a contest, you believers in the Humours. Let us take from the itinerants’ hospitals, from the camps or from elsewhere 200 or 500 poor people with fevers, pleurisy etc. and divide them in two: let us cast lots so that one half of them fall to me and the other half to you. I shall cure them without blood-letting or perceptible purging, you will do so according to your knowledge (nor do I even hold you to your boast of abstaining from phlebotomy or purging) and we shall see how many funerals each of us will have: the outcome of the contest shall be the reward of 300 florins deposited by each of us. Thus shall your business be concluded. O Magistrates to whose hearts the health of your people is dear; let the trial be made for the public good, in order to know the truth, for the sake of your life and soul and for the health of all the people, sons, widows and orphans. Let there be a real debate to find the means of cure. Rather than giving honours use your office to add a reward for its finding. Compel those who resist either to enter the contest or to concede the field in silence. Let them demonstrate what they now bawl about. Thus are credentials to be established. Let words and quarrelling cease; let us act in friendship and from our shared experiences; let it be known hereafter which is the true method. For when there is contradiction, of the two proposals only one is true.”

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“For if you are moved by charity, or the care of your souls vexes you, let us proceed to the challenged contest ! For I swear that if you win I shall happily abandon my evil opinions and hereafter enter fully into your doctrine.”

(Helmont 1648; Ortus, pp 526-527).

Translation by IML Donaldson


 Johannes Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644)

Images of Johannes Baptista van Helmont and his son Franciscus Mercurius. As published in:

Helmont JB van (1648) Ortus medicinae. Id est, initia physiciae inaudita. Progressus medicinae novus, in morborum ultionem, ad vitam longam / authore, Ioanne Baptista van Helmont. Edente authoris filio, Francisco Mercurio van Helmont, cum ejus praefatione ex Belgico translata. Amsterodami : Apud Ludovicum Elsevirium.



The editors are grateful to:

The Wellcome Trust for making available the portrait of Johannes Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644).

Key articles

  • Donaldson IML (2016).
    Joan Baptista van Helmont’s proposal around 1643 for a randomised comparison of using or withholding bloodletting and purging when treating fevers.

Other articles