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Kenelm Digby was an English courtier, book collector, and natural philosopher, advancing in particular the fields of chemistry and biology. He carried on his service to the state beside his scientific experimentation and a lively involvement in the international intellectual life of his time. Digby is a transitional figure, attempting to synthesize Aristotelian traditions on the body and the soul with modern developments of atomism and mechanical physics. Among his various commentaries and treatises, his “On the body” (published 1644), especially the pioneering chapters on embryology, was most influential.
Digby is born into a family of ancient gentry, strongly holding fast to their Roman Catholicism (his father was executed for involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605). He is homeschooled by Jesuits before enrolling at Gloucester Hall, Oxford, in 1618, a college which required no religious conformism. Owing to his personal and scholarly brilliance, Digby makes an impression on Thomas Allen, Gloucester Hall’s don and co-founder of the Bodleian Library, so much so that he calls him “the Mirandola of his age” after the noble Florentine philosopher Pico della Mirandola (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, 1.225). Between 1619 and 1623, Digby goes on a grand tour to France, Italy, and Spain, making connections to the European political elite and the continental intelligentsia, as well as collecting books and manuscripts, and continuing his study of natural philosophy. Upon his return to England, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Venetia Stanley (1600–1633), to whom he remains devoted his entire life. The couple had three surviving sons. From 1628 to 1629, Digby gains wealth and national admiration in a privateering campaign against ships from France and Spain with whom England is at war at the time. When his wife suddenly dies in 1633, a grief-stricken Digby retires from public life to Gresham College, then a center of scientific research. Pursuing scholarly and religious freedom, Digby moves to Paris in 1635 where he meets Thomas Hobbes. Upon killing a nobleman in a duel, Digby returns to England in 1641 but is imprisoned at the beginning of the civil war in 1642. During his 1-year incarceration, Digby writes a commentary to Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, as well as two scientific treatises, “On the soul” and the immensely learned and influential “On the body.” Upon his release in 1643, Digby joins Queen Henrietta Maria’s household in Paris and spends the next years petitioning the English parliament for restitution of his confiscated estates and his right to return. Back in England in 1654, Digby mostly withdraws from politics in favor of scientific experimentation in his laboratory in Covent Garden. He is among the earliest members of the Royal Society founded in 1660 but largely retires from active involvement. After a long and illustrious career in international politics and science, Digby dies from illness at home in 1665.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Like most learned persons of his age, Digby was thoroughly trained and intensely interested in astrology, alchemy, and other mythical lore (such as the cyclical death and rebirth of the phoenix) and conducted experiments pertaining to the same. Aristotelianism, although by no means monolithic, was still central to the university curriculum, and Digby attempted to wed various interpretations of it with current sceptical trends spearheaded by René Descartes. While accepting Thomist metaphysics, he embraced chemical theories of atomism, together with mechanical physics which understood processes in the world as matter in motion. Like Pierre Gassendi, Digby attempted to integrate contemporary interpretations of received knowledge with recent scientific developments in rational thought and deduction.
Innovative and Original Aspects
In his huge work the Two Treatises (1644), Digby sets out to infer the immortality of the soul through evidence from the physical world. The longer first part, “Of bodies,” describes natural phenomena via his blend of Renaissance Aristotelianism with atomism and mechanical physics. The second part, “On the soul,” circumvents Christian theology, basing its proof for the existence of the soul on purely material grounds, a testament to its time, yet less influential than Digby’s experimental deductions on embryology.
In a publication for the Royal Society, A Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants (1661), Digby realizes the importance of air to plant growth, putting a basic theory of photosynthesis forward. He constructed several laboratories for experimentation, contributing to the advancement of empirical knowledge but also falling prey to faulty conclusions and fanciful beliefs such as his recipe for “sympathetic powder” which, when applied to the weapon, was thought to cure the wound made by it.
In his later life, Digby focused on refining and gathering recipes for cooking, alchemy, and medicine, a collection of which was posthumously published by his steward George Hartmann, A Choice Collection of Rare Secrets (1682). Digby also had a lifelong interest in wine-making and wine-keeping, inventing, for example, an improved bottle.
Impact and Legacy
A true Renaissance man, Digby excelled in various activities, including private, public, and scholarly life. Widely read in his own age, he was often mentioned in the company of leading thinkers of his times with whom he sustained lively correspondences. After his death, however, his fame and authority as scientist declined, perhaps owing to his sometimes arcane beliefs and reliance on authorities. Most of Digby’s observations, however, draw on some form of scientific experimentation, attempting to reconcile neo-scholasticism with empiricism. Apart from his natural philosophy, as well as his dashing figure at court, Digby’s legacy also stretches into the humanities: donating some of his choice collection of manuscripts and early printed books to Oxford and Harvard universities, he also saw through for preparation of the 1640 Folio of Ben Jonson’s poetry in manuscript form, attesting to his lively role in the intellectual and cultural lives of England and the Continent in the seventeenth century.
- 1661. A discourse concerning the vegetation of plants. London.Google Scholar
- George Hartmann. 1682. A choice collection of rare secrets. London.Google Scholar
- 1868. Journal of a voyage into the Mediterranean, ed. John Bruce. London.Google Scholar
- 1827. Private memoirs of Sir Kenelm Digby, gentleman of the bedchamber to King Charles the first, Written by himself. London.Google Scholar
- 1645. Two treatises in the one of which the nature of bodies, in the other, the nature of mans soule is looked into in way of discovery of the immortality of reasonable soules. London.Google Scholar
- Aubrey, John. 1898. In Brief lives, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696, ed. A. Clark, vol. 1. London.Google Scholar
- Foster, M. 2009. Digby, Sir Kenelm (1603–1665), natural philosopher and courtier. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed.Google Scholar
- Janacek, Bruce. 2000. Catholic natural philosophy: Alchemy and the revivification of Sir Kenelm Digby. In Rethinking the scientific revolution, ed. Margaret Osler. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Moshenska, Joe. 2016. A stain in the blood: The remarkable voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
- Rubin, Davida. 1991. Sir Kenelm Digby, F.R.S., 1603–1665: A bibliography. San Francisco: Jeremy Norman.Google Scholar