Boiling Milk: Experimenting with Boerhaave’s Little Furnace, Part III

Boiling Milk: Experimenting with Boerhaave’s Little Furnace, Part III

Milk in Boerhaave Little Furnace

It has been exactly 350 years since Herman Boerhaave’s birthday. What better way to honour the renowned professor than to redo some of his old experiments? 

[This blog, written with Marieke Hendriksen, was originally published at The Recipes Project]

Ruben and the stove
Fig. 1. Ruben keeps an eye on the temperature.

On Monday 31st of December, in the year 1668, Herman was born. And already as a kid, he and his brother James probed the curiosities of nature: plants, minerals, liquids and bodily fluids. As Herman recalled some 30 years later, “how many whole days and nights we have spent successively together in the chemical examination of natural bodies” [1]. It must have been around this time that Herman invented his little furnace.

“I’ll put an alarm to take the milk out of the freezer,” Marieke texted Ruben the week before New Years’. Between all the Christmas dinners, the 31st was the only day still free to meet up over the holiday. Weeks before we had bought Irish turf online and collected raw milk from a farm near Delft, as well as from a breastfeeding friend . Having finally found the time, we gathered their materials together and started experimenting.

Why Milk?

As a physician, Boerhaave was fascinated with the human body. How does it work? What is it made of? Boerhaave soon realised that a newborn solely grows on breastmilk. Mothers eat their food and digest it with juices from their intestines; after circulating in their bodies, the fluid concocts into chyle and develops into the maternal sustenance in their breasts. Not only human babies, Boerhaave reasoned, but all mammals are nourished by milk and can grow solely on it. “Milk, therefore, appeared to be the first thing to be examined.” [2]

Fig. 2. 4PM: Raw milk heated with vinegar gives you cheese – well, sort of.
Fig. 2. 4PM: Raw milk heated with vinegar gives you cheese – well, sort of.

Making Curd

We set out to replicate the first experiment, titled “fresh cow’s milk coagulates with acids, even in a boiling heat.” We lit the turf in the fireplace. Once it was hot, glowing, and smelling, Marieke put some in an earthenware bowl and placed it in our wooden furnace to let it heat up. Meanwhile Ruben added vinegar to fresh milk in a glass vessel. As the fluid was gradually heating up in our furnace, parts of the mixture were slowly coagulating into curd.

We were basically imitating the cheese-making proces – a more than common practice in the early modern Dutch Republic. Boerhaave, however, assigned physiological significance to this process. For the cheese could be hardened and burned, smelling like bone – proving that even the hardest parts of a baby’s body could have its origin in milk. “This is a strange change of so fluid a matter as milk, but is, perhaps, the origin of all the solids in the body.” [3]

Red Milk

The second experiment was to show how “recent cow’s milk coagulates, turns yellow, and red, by boiling over the fire with fixed alcali.” We basically repeated the previous steps, but instead of using vinegar we added ammonia. Slowly but surely, the white fluid indeed turned yellow, then a dark orange – and was about to turn red. Here we had to stop, unfortunately, because the turf was cooling down, and it was getting dark outside.

Yet via this relatively simple process, Boerhaave confirmed a common illness: milk fever. The milk from mothers suffering from fever “becomes yellow, saline, thin and sanious.” [4] It also clarified why Dutch cows gave yellow milk during the 1714 outbreak of cow’s fever.

Fig. 3. 6PM: Raw breast milk heated with ammonia: ‘bloody’ milk?
Fig. 3. 6PM: Raw breast milk heated with ammonia: ‘bloody’ milk?

So What Have we Learned?

First, turf smells! We can only surmise that our early modern colleagues were simply oblivious to the smell due to its omnipresence. Second, our apparatus passed the test. Boerhaave’s little furnace successfully kept the heat inside at an evenly distributed yet high temperature (around 60℃). This is an important feat, especially when working with milk. Anyone who has ever boiled milk knows how easily it becomes a big mess when you don’t pay attention for just two seconds. Yet we were able to have 15-minute glühwein and oliebollen breaks without any problem. 

Third, our experiments have shown us how relatively easily some of Boerhaave’s experiments can be replicated – as opposed to some of his contemporaries who made secret potions or applied intricate and dangerous procedures with metals and minerals. Historical reproduction, reconstruction, and re-enactment are methodologically complex and potentially problematic because of the impossibility of repeating history and reliving the experiences of historical actors. Yet our experiments do enhance our understanding of the past; they make our historical understanding more holistic, less linear and text-based. [5] For example, these experiments help us to understand why Boerhaave was such a popular teacher; with the help of a small oven based on his design, students could learn by doing. 

Fourth, with more time and patience we could have gained better results. This is the case with everything, of course. Yet some of Boerhaave’s experiments with milk – for example the milk turning sour by digestion (i.e. at 37℃) – is described as taking twelve days! Lastly, replicating early modern experiments is fun. We won’t deny that working on your object of study outside the library is refreshing. The photos and videos of the process have a public appeal too. We hope you enjoyed it.



[1] ‘Dedication’ in Herman Boerhaave, Elements of Chemistry (London, 1735), A3r.

[2] Herman Boerhaave, A New Method of Chemistry (London, 1741), 2, 185.

[3] Ibid., 187–188.

[4] Ibid., 188–189.

[5] Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art: Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Technniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63 (2010): 128–79. Marieke M.A. Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy. The Eighteenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), Chapter 1. Donna Bilak et al., “The Making and Knowing Project: Reflections, Methods, and New Directions,” West 86th 23, no. 1 (2016): 35–55. Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum, “From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again : Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science,” Ambix 63, no. 2 (2016): 85–97.