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The Legend of Dr Sylvius

Dr Sylvius, Genever
Written by Gin Foundry

Franciscus Sylvius aka Dr Sylvius (15 March 1614 – 19 November 1672), born Franz de le Boë, was a noted Dutch physician and scientist (chemist, physiologist and anatomist).

He was one of the earliest defenders of the theory of circulation of the blood in the Netherlands, and is also commonly and falsely cited as the inventor of gin’s forefather - Genever.

Quite a few have debunked the myth already, yet it’s a persistent feature in quick reports about the history of gin, who use Dr Sylvius as a tool to move their story quickly to avoid packages being bogged down with historical convolution. Unfortunately, the nature of the world and its inventions seldom offers such tidy realities. We felt it was important to re-iterate some of the already existing debunked facts so that those who wanted more information could find it, all in one handy place.

Dr Sylvius – a few actual facts.

Dr Sylvius was born in Hanau, Germany to an affluent family originally from Cambrai, but he worked and died in the Netherlands. He studied medicine at the Protestant Academy of Sedan, and in Leiden from 1632–1634.

From 1641 on he had a lucrative medical practice in Amsterdam. While there, he met Johann Rudolph Glauber, who introduced him to chemistry. In 1658 he was appointed the professor of medicine at the University of Leiden and was paid 1,800 guilders, which was twice the usual salary of that era. He became the University’s Vice-Chancellor in 1669-70.

The Myth –

According to the legend, Dr Sylvius created the first iteration of Genever when researching a cure for stomach and kidney disorders. After all he did indeed research distilling medicines with botanicals such as juniper berry oil. Allegedly, the demand was so great for his cure that he went to local distillers who helped him make it in larger volumes. Over time, this became known as Genever and the story goes on…

The Truth –

The problem is that none of this stands up to even the most minor inspection. For example, none of his papers, which reference juniper berries, blood circulation and all sorts of academic theories, ever mention any of this, nor do they ever refer to Genever.

If one looks at the dates, it’s also evident that Dr Sylvius wasn’t the first to distil juniper or call an elixir Genever. There are written evidences of Genever in 13th century Bruges, 16th century Antwerp and separately, an actual recipe from France dated 1495 that was recreated by EuroWineGate in 2014.

Closer to Sylvius’ lifetime, the Dutch had been officially levying taxes on Genever since 1606, some 8 years before he was even born.

In England, Genever’s existence is demonstrated in Massinger’s 1623 play, “The Duke of Milan”, where in scene 1, Act 1, the word is used with a dual effect. At this point, Dr. Sylvius would have only been 9 years old…

So it seems that while convenient to credit him for the invention of Gin in abridged histories, it’s far from the truth. For those seeking to read more about the history of Genever, the role of Belgian distillers in its development and it’s early years, we’ve written an article here: Genever’s often forgotten history