John French, An English Distiller

John French. The art of distillation, or, A treatise of the choicest spagirically preparations performed by way of distillation. London: Printed by E. Coates for Thomas Williams, 1653.

John French (c.1616-1657) was born in Broughton, England and earned his BA from Oxford in 1637. After earning his MA in 1640, he served as a physician in the parliamentary army of Sir Thomas Fairfax during the English Civil War. He was later employed at the Savoy Hospital in London. In 1648 he received an MD from Oxford, and he was also examined for admission into the College of Physicians, although it is uncertain if he was ever a member.

French had a strong interest in the increasingly prominent field of medical chemistry, and was an admirer of the work of Paracelsus and Jean Baptiste van Helmont. He saw himself as something of a medical reformer. In the introduction to the Art of Distillation he said that, “that empty natural philosophy which is read in the Universities, is scarce the meanest hand-maid to this Queen of Arts;” the “Queen of Arts” meaning chemistry/alchemy.

His book on distillation includes fairly conventional recipes for treatments such as rose water and sage water, but instructions for making distillations using what modern audiences would consider unconventional ingredients, such as dung, milk, and even human brains, are also present.

Continue – Mary Kettilby