A scientific faux pas

Philip Alfort

  Nils Philip Alfort (28/3 1820 – 21/8 1866)
  D1 branch []
  Son of Adolf Fredrik Alfort & Wilhelmina Almroth
  Eskilstuna Kloster, Södermanland
  Apothecary, pharmacist, provisor
icon-globe  Emigrated to San Francisco

  Primary sources

Philip’s signature 1842.

Philip grew up in Eskilstuna as the eldest son of the city’s municipal doctor. His father had been a pioneer in many ways, both from the point of view of his family, in taking up a medical career, and in his profession. He had also gone on scientific expeditions to several continents. Philip probably looked up to him and wanted to make a name for himself within the natural sciences. His father presumably also had high expectations for him from an early age, but there is no doubt that he was driven by a natural enthusiasm for his scientific work. Apart from founding a scientific journal and starting a book series on Swedish and Finnish spa wells, he also founded an archive for the manuscript collection Westinska Samlingen which is to be found in the University Library at Uppsala.

His career began at a school in Strängnäs in 1828 from which he graduated in 1832. He then moved to Stockholm on 22 December 1835 in order to study pharmacy, settling in the old city centre (Storkyrkan parish) at 15 years old. From september 1836 he was apprenticed for a year to apothecary Arvid Granström, who then moved to Sigtuna, where he became the city apothecary for a year, taking Philip with him. When the year was up, both the apothecary and his apprentice returned to the capital, but Philip then got a new apprenticeship for the following year with apothecary Carl Lehman in northern Söderhamn, where he remained until October 1838. This is mentioned in a letter which the famous Swedish letter-writer Adolph Törneros wrote to his father that year. The letter talks a great deal about Philip:

Thus your Philipp is anxious not to spend more money on travelling than is strictly necessary. He did not pause to stay here to look around. Even the cathedral he did not succeed in seeing from within, for he arrived one or two minutes after the prayer hour had ended and the door had been locked. I wanted to show him the Physical Instrument Room, which he himself had been curious about; but even there fate would that Rudberg was absent, he who otherwise spends almost every hour of the day at the place. The only thing I succeeded in opening for him was the Library and the art cabinett. – He now appeared to be in his métier, and to approach the world like an old experienced apothecary. It was no longer the pupil at school, but rather a man with his feet rooted in the soil of life. His sojourn away from home, and perhaps also 1½ years of added age, have given him attitude and skill within and without, very much in his favour. It is curious to see how fast personality will settle, from being an undecided je ne sais quoi. May God favour him with happiness and well-being in his station up in the high north. For his exams he must surely have time to prepare himself at the time he has decided. School studies are a good foundation on which the small structure required for such a test and inspection can easily be built. But it was a fatal incident with his arm and hand, which has been injured for good.

Således är din Philipp mån om sig, och vill ej kasta ut mer pengar på landsvägen, än nödigt är. Han gaf sig icke ro att stadna här, för att se sig omkring. Äfven Domkyrkan misslyckades han att få se invändigt, ty han kom en el. annan minut sedan böntiman slutat och dörren blifvit sluten. Jag ville visa honom Physicaliska Instrumentkammaren, hvilken han sjelf efterfrågade med nyfikenhet; men äfven här fogade missödet, att Rudberg var frånvarande, han, som eljest nästan hvarje timma af dagen är på stället. Det enda jag lyckades att öppna för honom, var Bibliotheket och konstcabinettet. – Han tycktes nu vara inne i sitt fack, och taga verlden såsom en gammal och erfaren Apothekare. Det var ej mer Quartanen i Scholan, utan en Karl med rötterna slagna i det allmänna lifvets jordmån. Hans sejour hemifrån, ock kanske äfven 1½ års tillsats i ålder, har gifvit honom i det inre hållning och i det yttre, skick, mycket till hans förmån. Det är besynnerligt att se, huru hastigt charakterer bestämma sig, ifrån att vara ett oafgjordt je ne sais quoi. Gud gifve honom lycka och trefnad på sin nya station oppe i höga norden. Till examen må han väl utan svårighet hinna bereda sig till den tid han dertill föresatt. Skolstudierna äro en god botten, på hvilken den lilla byggnad, som till en sådan pröfning och afsyning erfordras, lätt kan vara uppförd. Men en fatal händelse var det med hans arm och hand, hvilken han fått för beständigt skadad.

The full letter can be read in Swedish here.

After his stay in Söderhamn, he returned home to Eskilstuna, but in December the following year he once more headed for the capital in order to complete his studies. He first settled at a pharmacy in the Ulrica neighbourhood (by the church) on the island of Kungsholmen, where he received the epithets orderly, staid and capable (ordentlig, stadgad, duktig), as one of two apprentices of apothecary M. P. Hamberg. On 21 February 1840 he moved to Sperlingens Backe 39 in Hedvig Eleonora parish (probably in the street Biblioteksgatan, between Stureplan and Humlegårdsgatan), where the local priest noted that he was a good and moral christian (god kristendom, hedrande fräjd), but already on 18 April he moved on to Packartorgsgatan 4 (the precursor of the main part of Biblioteksgatan) in Jakob & Johannes parish.

He clearly had a deeply-rooted wish to publicise his scientific work, because he made several publications in the course of the next few years. He was only twenty years old when he started his own pharmaceutical journal Pharmaceutisk Tidning.

Aftonbladet 3/5 1841.

Perhaps he was still rather naïve as regards scientific contributions from a young and inexperienced scientist. He didn’t really have the necessary experience to accomplish what he set out to do this early in his career. His journal only survived for two years (1840-1841), because his next publication would lead him into disrepute and cost him his career and future in Sweden.

During this time he lived at Bryggaregränd 17 in the presumably cheap Lower Klara neighbourhood – probably what is now Bryggargatan 8 – and bore the title Med. Candidat and later Pharm. Candidat.

Philip Alfort’s contracts with his publisher Per Gustaf Berg 1841-1842. Source: Riksarkivet.

The Royal Library in Stockholm has kept the contracts he signed with his publisher Per Gustaf Berg in 1841-1842 in connection with the publication of his book Handbok för brunnsgäster (i.e. Manual for spa visitors), Vol. 1: Beskrifning öfver Sveriges förnämsta helsobrunnar, ’Description of Sweden’s most famous spa wells’ icon-external-link, Vol. 2: Handbok för brunnsgäster icon-external-link, inkl. Beskrifning öfver hufvudstadens helsovårds-anstalter, med afseende på vattenläkekonsten).

Handbok för brunnsgäster

Aftonbladet 16/6 1842.

Najaden 28/6 1842. Here we see Adolf Törneros, P.D.A. Atterbom and Philip Alfort mentioned together on the list of new books. Törneros was a close friend of Philip’s father, and Atterbom was involved with his cousin Lovisa Ahlfort.

The book was publicised as breaking new ground by establishing a new scientific field, but it received rather mixed reviews, in spite of a general consensus that it had great potential. The articles were of very mixed quality, and the book needed to be reworked in order to realise its potential. One reviewer at the paper Dagligt Allehanda sums it up rather tersely:

… a review of ”Handbok för Brunnsgäster by Philip Alfort”, who is recommended, before completing this work, to first acquire a certain amount of the skills required.

… en recension af ”Handbok för Brunnsgäster af Philip Alfort”, hvilken tillrådes att, innan han fullbordar detta arbete, först förskaffa sig ett visst qvantum dertill erforderliga kunskaper.

Even so, there were also many words of praise for the project he had set out to complete, if only he would take the time to do it properly.

Dagligt Allehanda 4/8 1842.

The full contemporary review of Handbok för Brunnsgäster. Dagligt Allehanda 21/7 1842.

Another contemporary review of Handbok för Brunnsgäster. Svenska Biet 4/8 1842.

Apparently Philip then planned to publish a book on Swedish flowers, Blommornas Bok, as can be seen from the contract with his publisher in October 1842 shown above, but he appears never to have completed it, possibly because of what happened in the aftermath of the publication of his previous book. It turned out that he had been guilty of a serious scientific faux pas in his book, where he had unthinkingly accused a fellow scientist of performing his chemical analysis of the waters in a particular spa well on water from a different well with different qualities, based on hearsay. It was of course unwise to have such an unfounded accusation published (although we have no way of knowing whether it really was untrue). We know that it immediately led to complaints and retaliations in the Swedish Medical Society, and indeed it lost him his scientific reputation.

Retaliation in the Swedish Medicinal Society. Post- och Inrikes Tidningar 17/11 1842.

The next we hear of Philip is in 1847 when he finds himself in Munich, with no money or hope, at his wits’ end and very nearly desperate. He is so poor that he has been arrested by the police at one point, apparently simply for being poor, but it also transpires that he has behaved very badly at the occasion, so he once more finds himself in disgrace, unwanted by his fellow Swedes in Munich. He has nothing left to sell, so he has to beg his fellow compatriots’ mercy and ask them for enough money to be able to leave the place and get back to Sweden, so they can be free of him, and he can attempt to start afresh. If he doesn’t get the money, he is afraid that he may be driven to disgraceful acts of desperation.

Munich 17 Aug. 1847

Esteemed Sirs!

With the expression of my gratefulness for the subsidy which was given me, I take the liberty to communicate the outcome of the attempts I have made today to collect the necessary sum for my departure hence, so completely indispensable in case I am to, here at least, avoid my total destruction. It is also well known to my Sirs that in case I cannot leave Munich in time in order to seek my way home although with difficulties and sufferings, at least with the preservation of my freedom and honour, – and therefore must with or without my own doing come into the insulting hands of the authorities, in case I should miss the courage to evade the consequences of the poverty into which I have fallen for some time and my unsuccessful attempts to through people’s sympathy acquire the temporary help without which I cannot with the best of intentions regain the position which has in the past allowed me and might, if fortune would favour me, yet in future allow me to help myself through the practice of my profession, as I have no one else to live on – the first question which likely would be asked of me would be whether I could not expect a contribution from some compatriots here, and I thus against my wishes found myself in the unpleasant position of becoming for them an ärger [Ger. Ärger], which I have already through my distressful situation, although to a lesser degree, been. Both for the sake of my own salvation and for the reputation of our nation and the Swedes residing here, I wish of all my heart that I need not be driven by distress to any acts of desperation, nor to come into contact with the authorities through which both I and others might suffer but no benefit would arise for me as I thereby might well get across the border, but in such a way as to make it a thousand times more diffcult to then get home than if I just had the opportunity to settle things here in order to move on. I have now however partly from the Sirs, partly in other ways, gathered sufficient money as to be able to, with the addition of two gulden, be able to leave here; and as it is absolutely impossible for me to acquire the same sum, since I have not even any more belongings to sell in order to escape death and shame, I must be so impudent as to once more turn to the Sirs, being the only people I have to hope for and as they have not shown themselves unfeeling in relation to my situation and unwilling to assist me, with the last humble and dringing [Ger. dringend] request for arranging the collection of the mentioned insignificant sum through a small contribution from each of the Sirs who are so lucky to be in a better position. Well do I know that they do not owe me anything, and also that sympathy towards me may be lessened by our not being acquainted, by the errors which I myself admit to having committed, etc. – but a good and moral person considers more what he can do than he ought and rather follows the voice of his heart than that of egotism. This gives me the hope that my last attempt at salvation may not be considered by the Sirs an impertinence or the like and be rejected. I think that even Herr Baron Kock, although he for one thing has given me a gulden and for another has cause to be dissatisfied with me, nevertheless, when informed by the sirs, who also know what German conditions are like in this respect, on the truthfulness of my claim about the danger of seeking assistance with the police – by which I was led to utter words and act in a way caused by my difficult situation and lack of experience with finding myself in a dishonourable situation – would be good enough to give another small contribution, so that I might outright get what I unconditionally need, – a smaller [contribution] will not help me to anything except the prolongation of my sufferings here – in order to if not go directly home easily then at least get away from here in the interest also of the compatriots here and through that get an opportunity to exploit such sources elsewhere as distress forces me to. A poor and unhappy person has nothing but his hope and he thinks himself lucky if with that he can but evade death from one day to the next and unchristian laws prosecuting the crime of being poor. Allow me to return tomorrow morning and then present my heartfelt thanks for my salvation.

Respectfully, Ph. Alfort

München d. 17. Aug. 1847

Högaktade Herrar!

Med uttalandet af min tacksamhet för det understöd som lemnades mig, tager jag mig friheten att meddela utgången af de försök jag i dag gjordt för att tillsammanbringa den nödiga summan till min fortkomst härifrån, så högst oundgänglig i fall jag skall kunna, här åtminstone, undgå min totala förstörelse. Det är också mina Herrar väl bekannt att i händelse jag ej kan i tid lemna München för att vidare söka min väg till hemmet om ock med besvärligheter och lidanden, dock med bibehållandet af min frihet och ära, – samt derföre måste med eller utan mitt eget tillgörande komma under skymfande auctoriteters händer, i händelse modet skulle saknas mig att sjelf undandraga mig földerna af fattigdomen, jag råkat uti sedan någon tid och misslyckandet af mina bemödanden att genom menniskors deltagande få den tillfälliga hjelp utan hvilken jag ej med bästa vilja kan återkomma till den ställning, som förr tillåtit mig och ännu hädanefter skulle kunna, om lyckan vore mig huld, tillåta mig att hjelpa mig sjelf genom utöfvandet af mitt yrke, då jag ej eger andra att lefva utaf – den första frågan som troligtvis blefve mig tillställd vore den huruvida jag ej här kunde påräkna några landsmänns bidrag, och jag sålunda emot min önskan såg mig i den obehagliga ställning att blifva desamma till en ärger, såsom jag redan genom min nödfulla belägenhet, ehuru i ringare grad, varit det. Så väl derföre för min egen räddnings skulld som för vår nations och de härvarande svenskars anseende, önskade jag af allt mitt hjerta att icke behöfva drifvas af nöden till någon förtviflade handlingar, ej eller att komma i beröring med auctoriteter, hvarigenom väl både jag och andra lede men ingen nytta för mig uppstod då jag derigenom väl komme öfver gränsen men på ett sätt som gjorde det tusende gånger svårare att sedan komma hem än om jag blott hade tillfället att göra opp här för att gå vidare. Nu har jag ock dels af Herrarna, dels på annan väg, bringat ihop så mycket att jag med tvänne guldens tillägg genast kunde begifva mig härifrån; och då det är mig absolut omöjligt att förskaffa mig desamma, då jag ej ens mer har några effekter att realisera till undslippande af död och skam, måste jag vara oförskämd nog att åter vända mig till Herrarna, såsom de enda jag har att fästa mitt ringa hopp vid och såsom de der icke visat sig känslolösa för min belägenhet och utan önskan att kunna hjelpa mig, med den sista ödmjuka och dringande begäran om benäget föranstaltande af nämnde ringa summas hopsamling genom ett litet bidrag af en hvar af Herrarne hvilka äro så lyckliga att vara uti en bättre ställning. Jag vet väl att skyldigheter är ingen, också att deltagandet för mig kan förringas genom obekantskapen, genom felen jag sjelf medgifver mig hafva begått, o.s.v. – men en god och moralisk menniska ser mer på hvad han kan, än han bör och följer gernare sitt hjertas än egoismens röst. Det ger mig hoppet om att mitt sista försök till räddning ej skall af Herrarna upptagas såsom en oförskämdhet eller annat och blifva afslaget. Jag tror till ock med att h. herr Baron Kock, ehuru han dels gifvit mig en gulden och dels har orsak att vara med mig missbelåten dock, af herrarne, hvilka också känna tyska förhållanden i detta afseende, underrättad om rigtigheten af min utsågo öfver faran att söka min hjelp hos policen – hvarigenom jag förleddes till ord och uppförande som min svåra belägenhet men ej vana vid oheder vidare förorsakade – skulle vara nog god och äfven lemna ett vidare ringa tillskott, så att jag på en gång finge hvad jag ovillkorligast behöfver, – ett ringare hjelper mig till intet eller blott till mitt lidandes förlängning här – för att om ock ej kunna direkte komma lätt hem dock härifrån till glädje äfven för de här varande landsmännen samt derigenom tillfälle att annorstädes begagna de källor till min återkomst nöden tvingar mig till. En arm och olycklig har ej mer än hoppet och han skattar sig lycklig om han ock blott med det kan undfly döden från dag till dag och okristliga lagars förföljelse af brottet att vara fattig. Tillåt mig att i morgon tidigt få komma åter och då aflägga min hjertliga tacksamhet för min räddning.

Högaktningsfullt Ph. Alfort

Philips’ letter written in Munich in 1847. Source: The Swedish National Archives.

We do not know whether the esteemed Sirs deigned to give him the money he required, but he did eventually reach Sweden again. However, it seems that his father was unwilling to assist him in any way and had broken off with him at this point, given his total lack of alternative sources of money and his insistence that I have no one else to live on, which sounds as though he has no family willing to support him. He was not disinherited, though, so the lack of contact may in fact possibly have been caused by Philip’s own shame rather than any actual unwillingness on the part of his family.

In 1850 he acquires a passport for travelling to North America and boards the ship Nordstjernan departing from Gothenburg on 14 August 1850. When he leaves, he gives his profession as provisor.

Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning 15/8 1850.

For some reason, he is not registered officially as having emigrated from Gothenburg until 1853. In that document, he is called a pharmacy student.

When his father dies in 1855, Philip is mentioned among his heirs; he is not present personally, but there is no mention of any difficulty in regard to giving him his share. When his aunt Helena Maria dies a year later, however, he is spoken of as the son of age Philip Ahlfort, whose place of residence is unknown, but is assumed to be in America (myndige Sonen Philip Ahlfort, hvars vistelseort är okänd, men förmodas vara i America), so it seems most likely that they did not even know where he had gone after leaving Sweden. In that case, it is unlikely that he ever got his inheritance.

When his youngest sister Anna Lovisa Charlotta dies in 1865, he is simply said to be abroad (vistas utrikes). One year later, he himself is buried in plot 37 in the Scandinavian cemetery in San Francisco, presumably unmarried, after having died at the German hospital. He is still registered as an apothecary when he dies, so perhaps he finally got the opportunity to make a living in his true profession once in America.

Philip Alfort’s death 1866 in San Francisco. Source: Familysearch.org.

Research data

  • icon-male signature: Philip Alfort (1841-1842); Ph. Alfort (1841-1842)
  •  name (others’ spellings): Nils Philip (1820-1855); Nils Philip Alfort (1835-1865); ApothekareEleven Nils Philip Alfort (1836-1837); Lärl. N. Phil. Alfort (1837); Lärlingen Nils Philipp Ahlfort (1837-1838); Pharmacie Studiosus Alfort (1837); Apoth. Eleven N. Ph. Ahlfort (1838); N. Ph. Alfort (1840); Ph. Alfort (1842-1847); Philip Alfort (1842-1866); P. Alfort (1842-1853); Hr Alfort (1843-1852); Filip Alfort (1843); Phil. Ahlfort (1844); Hr N. Ph. Alfort (1846); Ph. Ahlfort (1848); Philip Ahlfort (1848-1856); Phil. Alfort (1849-1850); provisor Phil. Alfort (1850); Phillip Alford (1866)
  •  b. Eskilstuna Kloster 1820: v54894.b99.s185
  • icon-male d. San Francisco 1866; 1866 (ingestion lungs)
  •  hous.ex. 1820-1831;1835-1840 Eskilstuna Kloster: v54754.b65.s55(1820-1822); v54755.b63.s54a(1823-1825); v54756.b67.s55(1826-1828); v54757.b66.s57(1829-1831); Storkyrkoförs.: v90589.b110.s213[1835]; v90642.b46.s39[1836]; Sigtuna St. Olof & St. Per: v89734.b720.s65(1836-1837); Söderhamn: v136888.b26[1837]; v136843.b216.s208(1837-1838); v136888.b30[1838]; Eskilstuna Kloster: v54759.b76.s66(1838-1839); Kungsholm: v87538.b189.s185[1839]; Hedvig Eleonora: v85468.b900.s84[1840]; Jakob och Johannes: v86262.b120.s4[1840]; Kungsholm: v87505.b52.s93(1840); emigration: v830652.b90.s5[1853]
  •  inh. v147608.b5050.s134(1853); v205255.b1160.s120(1855); v223279.b3830.s67(1856); v147988.b3820.s377(1865)