In 1740, when Maria Theresa inherited the Habsburg Empire, Austria was about 200 years behind its European neighbors in the medical realm. Maria Theresa acted fast and recruited knowledgeable people to her court. Gerard van Swieten was one of the most important people she brought to Vienna, Austria.
Van Swieten was educated at the Leiden University; he studied under Herman Boerhaave and became a well-respected physician. He actually compiled his notes from Boerhaave’s lectures into a 15 volume set. In Austria, van Swieten was appointed as the Chief Physician, which meant he not only cared for the royal family, but he also managed the entire medical staff as well. He was also named the Director of the Imperial Library. As President of the Censorship Committee, van Swieten had access to all the new books being published. He documented the list of books that the committee read in Supplementum Librorum Prohibitorum. This record of 3,120 works, 595 of which were banned, provides insight to historians on the social and political sentiments of the time.
Van Swieten’s legacy is in his reform movement. In 1749, he proposed a plan to completely reorganize the faculty of medicine. Maria Theresa agreed to this plan and provided funding to establish the Vienna School of Medicine. Van Swieten added professorships of botany, chemistry, and surgery to the university and personally taught a two year lecture series on the functioning of the human body and the pathology of diseases. He also reformed pharmacy inspections to make the apothecaries more accountable.
In his book Diseases Incident to Armies, van Swieten describes a cure for syphilis. The concoction of mercury sublimate was called Liquor Swietenii. It was not invented by van Swieten, but he was the one who administered it on a large scale; therefore it was credited to him for over 100 years.
Van Swieten’s efforts of reform made a powerful impact in Austria. The Vienna School of Medicine became a highly respected institution of learning, and he was able to recruit impressive physicians and scientists to Vienna. Van Swieten was commemorated on the Euro in 2007 and can also be found on the Maria Theresa statue near the Hofburg in Vienna.
Image: Gerard van Swieten
Brechka, Frank T. Gerard van Swieten and his World, 1700-1772. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1970.
Kidd, Mark, and Irvin M. Modlin. “Van Swieten and the Renaissance of the Vienna Medical School.” World Journal of Surgery (25:4) 2001: 444-50.