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Hans Christian ØrstedReading Nature's Mind$

Dan Ch. Christensen

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199669264

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199669264.001.0001

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 | 1796–7  | 1796–7 Hans Christian's Gold Medals

 | 1796–7  | 1796–7 Hans Christian's Gold Medals

(p.47) 5 | 1796–7 Hans Christian's Gold Medals
Hans Christian Ørsted

Dan C. Christensen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Prize essays awarded by the University's gold medal were introduced in 1788. While Hans Christian won two gold medals, one in aesthetics and one in medicine, Anders, his brother, won one in law. Hans Christian's first essay dealt with the relationship between poetic and prosaic language and was based on the Charles Batteux' views on 'la belle nature', which he derived from the Aristotelian idea of mimesis. The second prize essay aimed at a chemical analysis of the amniotic fluid. By this time Hans Christian had become the protégé of Professor Manthey, owner of the largest pharmacy in Copenhagen, under whose tutorship he conducted the investigation. At that time the origin and purpose of the amniotic fluid were unresolved puzzles. Ørsted's essay was strictly analytic and he was praised for not succumbing to speculation.

Keywords:   prize essays, gold medals, aesthetics, Batteux, amniotic fluid, chemistry unlikely to become a science

The Arts are the Imitation of Beautiful Nature . . .1

BOTH ØRSTED brothers spent the winter months of 1795-6 on Langeland, Hans Christian giving his father a helping hand in his pharmacy. On their return to Copenhagen their roads diverged, Hans Christian studying pharmacy at the Faculty of Medicine and Anders studying law, choices corresponding to the interests they had already developed as they grew up. However it was not written in the stars that Hans Christian would become a mind reader of nature. As already mentioned, physics and chemistry were subjects that were not taught per se at the University. He admired poets and had a poetic vein himself. As an older boy he had read Jens Hvas's translation of Batteux's aesthetics (1773–4). Charles Batteux had published his Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe (1746), and J.E. Schlegel had translated it into German.2 In 1774 Batteux had written a new five-volume Principes de la littérature that included his first book.3 Batteux's works became trend-setting for the aesthetical debate in Germany and Scandinavia and his central ideas were embraced by the Swiss thinker J.G. Sulzer in his four-volume encyclopaedia of aesthetics (1792–4) which Ørsted ploughed through. Batteux's overall principle conformed to the Aristotelian idea of mimesis and was expressed by Sulzer as follows:

‘As the artist is the servant of nature and his goals are the same, he is bound to use the means of nature to achieve them. Nature is the primary and most perfect artist, and invariably she chooses the best method to serve her purpose. It is impossible to find a better method. Hence, artists must take Nature as their model…That is the true school where the artist can learn the rules of his art by imitating the universal method of Nature.’4

(p.48) Batteux's principle, however, was far from as unequivocal as he seemed to imagine. Imitating nature is highly ambiguous. Heeding the Enlightenment cult of Newton one might think of this principle as scientific and rational, but to Batteux imitation was rather a form of idealisation. By ‘nature’ he meant ‘la belle nature’, that is an embellishment of nature affirming the cosmic order created by God, not recalcitrant, sombre or even catastrophic nature. The principle of ‘la belle nature’ was intended as a mirror, in which people could recognise themselves as individuals in accordance with or in contrast to the embellishment of nature.5

Early on Ørsted had been absorbed by the thought that the beauty of the arts was modelled on the beauty of nature, a thought that combined his two main interests, aesthetics and science. So he was no novice when Jacob Baden, the professor of rhetoric, set the following prize essay title for 1796: ‘How can prosaic language be corrupted by moving too close to poetry; and where are the boundaries between poetic and prosaic expression?’.

The term ‘aesthetic’ does not appear in the title of Batteux's works. This concept comes from the German philosopher of aesthetics, A.G. Baumgarten, and it means that artistic representations of nature are not directed to our intellect (as with laws of nature), but to our emotions and taste via our senses. However, since some representations of nature address the cool brain while others appeal to the heart as the seat of emotion, they tend to be inconsistent. In other words, poetry is likely to be at variance with prose. If the boundaries between the two are blurred then confusion arises. The correspondent, the scientist, and the historian are expected to be precise while the composer and the lyric poet touch our emotions. Batteux and Sulzer provide an abundance of examples of the different genres. So when Ørsted had grasped Batteux's point, his prize essay was almost writing itself. He appreciated the ambiguity of Batteux, who represented all of nature poetically and as a consequence spoke artistically, that is elaborately, about simple nature, which he actually despised as something low, adding that ‘to seem high one must walk on stilts’.6

Hans Christian disagreed with the view that the poet could use metre alone to define poetry because orators or correspondents appealing to the senses would also express themselves poetically although not in metric style. He was well aware, of course, that logic, mathematics, and metaphysics must be prosaic due to their purely abstract and intellectual character. He embraced Baumgarten's definition of poetry: ‘A genre aiming at a sensual representation of its objects’.7

In short: whereas it is the aim of poetical language to titillate the senses, prosaic language serves to communicate scientific knowledge. Ørsted listed a number of texts which crossed the barrier between poetic and prosaic language and thus offended good taste. He drew attention to the flawed use of poetic language when poetry exaggerated its means of expression and became purple.8 On the other hand, prosaic language often failed to achieve its intention if it renounced poetic expressions altogether, because it is hard to persuade reason without having moved the emotions first.9

The Chancellor of the University presented the gold medal to Ørsted, who stood out from the anonymous crowd of students with this modest claim to fame.

Ørsted's prize essay was brief and close to his sources, which is understandable in view of the fact that he was busily involved in other activities: his work as inspector, and lectures at the (p.49) University. More important, no doubt, were Ludvig Manthey's tutorials on chemistry at the Academy of Surgery. Ørsted had made chemistry his main subject, and in Professor Manthey (his senior by only nine years) he found a patron for life. Manthey used F.A.C. Gren's Handbuch der gesamten Chemie, the most up to date textbook at the time and preferable to the Danish translation of Macquer as well as to Tychsen's textbook of chemistry. Through marriage, Manthey had become the owner of The Lion Pharmacy that had burnt down in the great fire of 1795 and was only rebuilt in 1799, so for four years coinciding with Hans Christian's intense studies of chemistry, Manthey took it upon himself to teach chemistry at the Academy of Surgery, thereby also enhancing his own knowledge in the light of his designated post as head of the Royal Porcelain Factory in Copenhagen.10 The relationship between Manthey and Ørsted developed into a warm and confident friendship.

At the exam on 20th May 1797 Ørsted impressed the three examining professors. The chemico-pharmaceuticum exam was divided into two main disciplines: chemistry and botany. Strange, therefore, that three medical professors were the examiners, while the professors of chemistry (Manthey) and botany were not. The reason was that chemistry and botany were regarded as stepchildren of the Faculty of Medicine. In addition, a state of rivalry existed between the University and the Academy of Surgery. Ørsted had acquired his knowledge at home in his father's laboratory and at the Academy of Surgery. To testify to his practical skills he presented a letter of apprenticeship issued by his father, who had passed the same exam twenty years before in front of almost the same panel; it declared his son to be a journeyman chemist by virtue of a five-year apprenticeship between the ages of twelve and seventeen, with additional practical experience in the lab during the winter of 1795–6.

Hans Christian impressed his examiners. Professor Saxtorph awarded him a laudabilis and the other professors a laudabilis præ ceteris. According to the rules laudabilis was the highest average of marks to appear on the diploma. Therefore, Professor Tode took steps to provide the graduate with a separate testimony that would make the holder blush and any rival blanch. Tode listed all Ørsted's academic merits, praised his knowledge on the modern anti-phlogistic chemistry as well as the previous Stahlian, and he stressed that on top of this bookish knowledge he was also well versed in practical skills in the lab. He had identified all fresh plants and explained their pharmaceutical properties correctly. Tode had examined 160 undergraduates in 28 years, he stated, but it was a long time since he had had the pleasure of meeting such a bright and at the same time such a young pharmaceutical student. He could hardly be expected to dedicate himself to the pharmaceutical profession solely, since he was endowed with an unusually fertile genius, indeed born for the sciences.11,12

So, Hans Christian was not entirely unprepared when he threw himself into writing his second prize essay on ‘The Origin and Function of the Amniotic Fluid’ for the Faculty of Medicine in 1797. The deadline was set at the beginning of December, and preparations for his exam prevented him from starting until June. In the course of six months he carried out a series of chemical experiments with amniotic fluid that was easily available from the maternity hospital (p.50) on Amaliegade and could be analysed at the Academy of Surgery, perhaps with the help of Manthey.

No doubt Mathias Saxtorph, the professor of obstetrics, had chosen the prize essay topic. Hans Christian took ‘chemia oculus medicinae alter’ [‘chemistry is the second eye of medicine’] as his motto, alluding to Paracelsus and the iatrochemists of the sixteenth century. ‘Use your own eyes!’ Paracelsus had said, ‘and burn the Galenic textbooks that lead the doctor astray.’ In other words, Ørsted was determined not to rehash outdated testbooks, but to examine chemical reactions with his own eyes. This method took a sly dig at the Faculty of Medicine which still considered a chair of chemistry superfluous.

Where does the amniotic fluid originate: from the embryo or from the uterus? And what does it do? Does it nourish the embryo or is it conducive to the delivery by adding weight to the embryo and making the birth canal smoother? Is chemistry able to answer these questions ‘lying in an almost impenetrable, Egyptian darkness?’. Textbooks offered several hypotheses of a speculative nature, but they often contradicted each another and Ørsted preferred natural philosophers, who relied on empirical investigations, even though he recognised that empiricists fought each other as well. He particularly took note of the works of Albrecht von Haller and J.F. Blumenbach, but hoped that his own chemical analyses might contribute to the solution.

According to the examiners, his finished report was ‘well-structured, well-written and carefully worked out’. His initial chemical analyses of the elements of the amniotic fluid were particularly laudable. The outcome of his many experiments with excipient acid, salt, alcohol, and acidic quicksilver, cooling, heating, and distillation was that the amniotic fluid contained hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and ammonium, as well as various salts, oils, phosphorus, and chalky soil. Hence, according to his analyses the fluid was ‘a thin water-like solution of albumen’.13

The problem of the origin of the amniotic fluid was the most difficult. Nobody had found the right answer, neither Haller nor Blumenbach. If it stemmed from the embryo, there were the following possibilities: sweat, urine, phlegm and saliva. They were all rejected by the argument that the quantity of amniotic fluid decreased in proportion to the weight of the embryo during pregnancy. Moreover, the chemistry of these secretions did not match that of the amniotic fluid. If they originated in the uterus the elements of the fluid must be traceable to the cellular tissue of the uterus or to the navel string, foetal membrane, or placenta. Ørsted concluded that the amniotic fluid had several sources such as the blood via arteries in the amnion, but realised that he did not have sufficient data to reach a definitive answer. ‘During our investigations experience—this faithful guardian—abandoned us, while—surrounded by a chaos of hypotheses—we did not know where to turn to.’14 The author gained much praise for his reluctance to come up with speculative conclusions.

The amniotic fluid was useful for the protection of the embryo during pregnancy and as ‘a moving force’ during the birth, when the birth canal was expanded and greased to ease the liberation of the child ‘from its prison’. But was the fluid nourishing, too? This was the hardest issue. The author repudiated the idea that the embryo would absorb nourishment by swallowing amniotic fluid arguing that no excrements could be traced. But he was uncertain about this as well. The essay was a methodologically sober piece of work. There were no (p.51) hasty guesses, but concrete analyses, and whenever knowledge was insufficient or uncertain Ørsted concluded with reservations. He was awarded his second gold medal.

Kant was not mentioned at all. His epistemology was irrelevant to chemical analysis. Moreover, unfortunately, according to Kant, chemistry was no science and was unlikely to become one. No Danish scientist, including Ludvig Manthey, had so far taken any interest in the critical philosophy. Soon, however, when Ørsted started working on his dissertation on atomic theory, the fundamental problem of physics, he would assign a major role to Kantian metaphysics.

Ørsted's gold medals nearly suffered the same fate as that of the famous golden horns that were stolen by a goldsmith and scandalously melted down. In the 1820s his Norwegian nephew, Søren Christian Ørsted Bull, who lived with his uncle on Studiestræde at that time, seized the occasion to steal the two gold medals from a desk drawer and sell them. The theft was discovered before the treasure was melted down, and the culprit was punished by being sent to sea as a simple sailor for two years.15 Such behaviour was not to be expected from any member of the Ørsted family.


(1.) C. Batteux 1773, vol. 1, 147

(2.) P. la Huray 1981, 40

(3.) C. Batteux 1774

(4.) J.G. Schulzer 1792–94, vol. 3, 91

(5.) I.V.D Lühe 1979, 28–38

(6.) HCØ, Minerva 1797, 130

(7.) HCØ, Minerva 1797, 138–9

(8.) ‘Professus grandia turget’ [one, who pretends to know great things, proves turgid], Horace Ars Poetica, 27, was HCØ's motto. With his essay, anonymous, of course, followed an envelope marked with the motto. After the examination the envelope would be opened and the identity of the author come to light.

(9.) HCØ Minerva 1797, 159

(10.) Aa. Schæffer 1947, 577–90 og 1948, 486–8. K. Bærentsen and V. Gaunø Jensen 1977, 11–20

(11.) Aa. Schæffer 1947, 589 (my translation from the German)

(12.) K. Bærentsen and V. Gaunø Jensen 1977, 17–18

(13.) HCØ 1798, 238

(14.) HCØ 1798, 248. A.W Hauch 1794, reviewed by HCØ in HCØ 1798 and 1799. Hauch 1794and Kratzenstein 1787 were quoted by F.A.C Gren 1797

(15.) F. Bull 1946, 37