Gerard van Swieten

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Gerard van Swieten, portrait from the Kaiserbild in the NHM Vienna
Gerard van Swieten in later years
Van Swieten at the Maria Theresa Monument , Vienna

Gerard van Swieten , German also Gerhard von Swieten , from 1753 Freiherr van Swieten (* May 7, 1700 in Leiden ; † June 18, 1772 in Hietzing near Schönbrunn Palace / Vienna ), was a physician of Dutch origin, personal physician and reformer at the time the enlightenment .

Van Swieten's career

Van Swieten first began studying at the University of Leuven , but then moved to the university in his hometown of Leiden in 1718 , where he studied chemistry, pharmacy and medicine and was a student of Herman Boerhaave . He received his doctorate in 1725 with a thesis on the structure and function of arteries ( Dissertatio de arteriae fabrica et efficacia in corpore humano ) and initially settled as a doctor in Leiden. He also worked as a private tutor and represented Boerhaave in his absence at the university. As a Catholic, however, it was impossible for Van Swieten to succeed Boerhaave at the Protestant University of Leiden after his death in 1738. From 1742 his popular work Commentaria appeared . When Anna von Lothringen , sister of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa , fell ill with childbed fever , van Swieten, who was in correspondence with the Empress, was summoned. Although he could no longer help the sister, the Empress was very impressed. In 1745 van Swieten therefore succeeded the previous personal physician Jean Baptiste Bassand (1680–1742) of the Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna. In this position he pushed through a restructuring of the Austrian health system and medical university education. The establishment of a botanical garden , a Theatrum anatomicum, a chemical laboratory and the introduction of clinical teaching go back to his initiative . The sum of his activities made him the founder of the Older Vienna Medical School . Leopold von Auenbrugger was one of his students .

Van Swieten's role in the fight against superstition

Van Swieten's role is particularly important in the struggle of the Enlightenmentists against " superstition ", especially in the case of the vampires , of which from around 1720 there were repeated reports from villages in south-eastern Europe.

In the Peace of Passarowitz after the end of the Turkish War in 1718 , some regions - for example northern Serbia and part of Bosnia - fell to Austria. These parts of the country were settled with refugees. They were given the special status of duty-free military farmers . In return, they had to take care of the agricultural development and border security. The vampire reports reached the German-speaking area for the first time through these settlers.

Maria Theresa sent Gerard van Swieten to Moravia in 1755 to clarify the vampire situation there. He himself described the vampire myth as the “barbarism of ignorance”, which he absolutely wanted to eradicate by all means. He examined the alleged vampire cases thoroughly and wrote a sober report on this subject, which was published under the title Treatise of the existence of ghosts and in which he used natural causes as an explanation for the vampire belief. For example, he attributed the unusual condition of the corpses exhumed as alleged vampires, some of which had blood oozing from the mouth, plump bodies or pink skin, to natural causes: to fermentation processes and a lack of air that prevented decay. In the preface to his report from 1768 he wrote, "that all the noise came from nothing but a vain fear, a superstitious gullibility, a dark and agitated phantasy, simplicity and ignorance among that people."

Other doctors supported his theory or identified other causes for the increased death in the villages, for example epidemics. Thus van Swieten was probably one of the most important fighters against the superstition of the "simple" people. On the basis of his report, Maria Theresa issued a decree that forbade all traditional defensive measures against vampires such as staking, beheading and burning.

Van Swieten was a template for Bram Stoker's fictional character of the vampire hunter Van Helsing in his famous novel Dracula .

Van Swieten as a reformer

In addition to his medical activities, van Swieten was also active as a reformer. Above all , he reorganized the censorship system . So he ousted the Jesuits who had previously carried out the censorship and only partially successfully centralized it. He also tried to use rational and scientific aspects to judge the books. He was a member of the Olomouc learned society Societas incognitorum .

Gerard von Swieten was raised to the baron status in Austria. His grave is in Vienna's Augustinian Church .

He was the father of Gottfried van Swieten , who was best known as the patron of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart .


On March 6, 1754, Gerard Freiherr von Swieten , nicknamed Mithridates, was accepted as a member ( matriculation number 588 ) in the Leopoldina .

A genus of the mahogany family, the Swietenia, is named after Gerard von Swieten .

In 1862 the Van-Swieten-Gasse in Vienna- Alsergrund (9th district) was named after him. Also in Vienna, Van Swieten barracks of the Austrian Armed Forces is named after him; it houses the military medical center. In the 10th district, an office of the Vienna Red Cross , the district office Van Swieten in Landgutgasse, bears his name.


Medal from 1772


Web links

Commons : Gerard van Swieten  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Gerard van Swieten  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Sonia Horn: Gerhard van Swieten. In: Wolfgang U. Eckart , Christoph Gradmann : Ärztelexikon. From antiquity to the 20th century. 1st edition. CH Beck, Munich 1995, pp. 347 + 348. (2nd edition. With the title: from antiquity to the present. Springer, Berlin et al. 2001, pp. 303 + 304; 3rd edition. Springer, Berlin et al. 2006, ISBN 3-540-29584-4 , p. 315 +316)
  2. Member entry by Gerard Frhr. van Swieten at the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina , accessed on June 20, 2016.
  3. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .