Johann Konrad Dippel, 1673 – 1734: Walk of Life

A theologian, medical doctor, and alchemist.  He it was who came up with Berliner Blau, aka Preussisch Blau, aka Prussian Blue.

Dibbel was the son of a vicar, and one of those articulate and passionate golden boys too smart for his own good and made the worse by a touch of innate contrariness. for its own sake.  His M.A. thesis in theology was titled  De Nihilo.

However goth seeming in theory,  in practice he was quite fervent as far as his theology went.  Lutheran theology, that is.  Nothing more rancorous than a dispute between revolutionaries.  In the case of Dippel, it boiled down to – Orthodoxy Good, Pietism Bad.  On later reflection and perhaps nudged by the cold fact that Orthodoxy did not look good on job applications, he would reverse the order.   Just as well, really.  Under Orthodoxy, he had killed a man in a duel, a misadventure that forced him on the road (something he would have to get used to).

Not that the gentler tenets of Pietism could undo the streak of crankiness in Dippel.  The trait ran too deep.

It ran him into trouble, as well.  There was that duel, of course, but there were arguments over doctrine with people who had more clout than he did.  He chose to dispute the matter not in a calm discourse in learned language for specialists, but short polemics in demotic German for the masses.  Luther, after all.

Clerics didn’t like this, naturally, but neither did the mob, and threats against his life.  Passion might have kept him at it, but the Authorities then as now disliked troublemakers. He was told to back off.

From theology to the sciences, then.  He had already taught astronomy and palmistry at the university level.  Now, having been given a copy of the Experimenta by Raymond Lully’s (1232-1315),  he decided that practical alchemy was the way to go.  Lead to gold? For a clever dickens like Dippel, how hard could it be?  He took money from investors, the proceeds of which bought him a quiet place in the country to work on the problem.

Investor patience ran out before Dippel reached his solution (though he did come up with the aforementioned dye), and he was forced to skip town.  Holland, this time, where then as now it takes a whole lot of misbehaving to land in the soup.  Here he studied medicine and got his MD, no doubt helped by his work on a universal panacea, a distillation of animal animal parts into their essential oils.  Dippel Oil,  good for what ails you. Not gold, but the next best thing.

Of course this quietus could not last.  Politics this time and somehow he managed to get himself sentenced o  seven years house arrest in Schleswig-Holstein.  Released by order of the Queen of Denmark, he headed to Sweden to attend to the Swedish court’s medical needs.

He was getting on by his point, and his passions may have outrun his energies.  Various sinecures turned up where he could work on his alchemical studies in peace.  He died of a stroke, age sixty one, well short of the one hundred and thirty four years he claimed his magical elixir was going to get him.

What exactly he was doing in his laboratories was the stuff of local gossip, but it can’t have been anything good, not with a history like his.  Fellow was probably mad.  All that guff about his miracle medicine, rendering animals down – no wonder the local vicar said he was a  grave robbing Satan worshiper.

Well, who doesn’t like a grisly crime story, especially one involving a  mad scientist?

And here conjecture enters.  One story goes that Jacob Grim (1784-1863) picked up some of this gossip and passed it on to his friend and translator Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841) who in turn passed it on to her step-daughter Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin (1797 – 1851).  Either that or Ms Godwin might have heard heard about the man it while on Grand Tour of Germany.

Whatever, the younger woman was minded to write a book about bringing the dead to life.   Needed a name for it, of course, something suitably middle European and exotic, something to set a tone of apprehension and horror suitable for the subject matter.  “Dibbel; or, the Modern Prometheus” – it doesn’t quite chill the spine, does it?  There was, however, the place where the old boy was born.

Castle Frankenstein.

Probably not the legacy he had intended.


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