A Brill Calendar: December 21
Herman Boerhave: " Young Magister"
Few academic promotions in Leyden University to the minor title of ‘Magister Philosophiae’ (what’s more one by a penniless student on the verge of reaching the age of 22), have been more pregnant with a grandiose future career than the one obtained in the Faculty of Philosophy on December 21, 1690.
Matriculated in 1684, fatherless and with a step-mother raising nine children in Leyden, this young man couldn’t pay fees required to be an in-law of the academic boarding school, where youngsters were being trained to preach in Calvinist Churches all over the Republic. Bright and inquisitive, he boosted the family income by acting as a private tutor in mathematics, albeit without formal qualifications. This first academic degree was awarded for his treatise ‘Disputatio de distinctione mentis a corpore’: ‘Disputation on the Difference between Mind & Body’.
Two years later the young Magister left Leyden for a while and got a ‘Doctor Medicinae’ title at the High School of Harderwijk, well known for its generosity to bestow such distinctions to solvent foreigners gracing the small town with their presence; as it did to this impecunious Herman Boerhaave as well, who returned to Leyden quickly thereafter.
It is seldom that one scholar increased the prestige of his Alma Mater so immensely – where he became a Professor only as late as 1709, after a long time as a practising physician in the city – even long after his death in 1738. Boerhaave, no genius like Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Huygens, but was certainly the ultimate ‘virtuoso’ of the early 18th century; excelling in an astounding range of loosely connected disciplines. He was also a man with a heroic capacity for hard work and sincere compassion, driven by a vast erudition, and came, for a time a one-man world-attraction. A letter dispatched from a British Colony in America addressed ‘Boerhaave, Europe’ is said to have reached him, long before regulated postal services.