I finished a great book last night: The Chemistry of Alchemy, by Cathy Cobb, Monty Fetterolf, and Harold Goldwhite.  It’s a history of alchemy, but Cobb et al. aren’t historians.  They’re chemists.  The chapters on history alternate with alchemical experiments the reader can do at home.  Obviously there’s no formula for turning anything into gold, but the reader can plate silver with gold, write with gold script, and create artificial gems, all in the kitchen with easily-obtained materials.

So let’s talk about the history of alchemy, because I’m clumsy and thus am afraid to conduct experiments.  With my luck I’d knock over something noxious and burn a hole in the floor.

Alchemy was the occult science that led to modern chemistry and medicine.  It started in Egypt, and over a thousand years or so it made its way through Islamic scholars to Catholic friars, and then to the rest of Europe.  Some of the people practicing alchemy were quacks and swindlers, but a large number of alchemists left behind papers that read like present-day lab notebooks.  They were meticulous, scientific in a way before science had a name.  Isaac Newton was an alchemist.  (But, then again, Isaac Newton decided a rainbow had to have seven colors, when it really only has six, because seven was a magical number.  Smart guy, just a bit deluded.  Like most alchemists, come to think of it!)  So was Robert Boyle, who came up with an observation about mass — Boyle’s Law — that is still a basic scientific principle.  Alchemy became chemistry, because its practitioners kept making discoveries that, while they had nothing to do with turning lead into gold, helped create science and technology we still use today.

An alchemist and medical doctor in the early 16th century, Paracelsus, was the first European to publicly dispute the “humors” theory of medicine.  That theory, invented by Galen before the Common Era, said that the body was ruled by four substances — humors — and sickness was caused by the humors being imbalanced.  Which is why people with fevers were bled — blood was “hot”, and so the heat needed to be released from the body.  Galenic medicine also involved laxatives, purgatives, and other treatments that typically made a sick person get even sicker.  Paracelsus thought it was bunk, and treated his patients with medicines he’d created though alchemical experiments.  A lot of them got better, and he grew famous.  (Admittedly, a lot of them got better because they were given time to heal instead of being subjected to bloodletting and projectile vomiting.  But some of his medications did work.)

Alchemy wasn’t entirely scientific, of course.  The goal of most alchemists was to find the “philosopher’s stone”, a substance — not actually a stone — that could turn base metals into gold.  Some sought medications that could heal at a distance.  Some tried to create universal solvents.  And there was a lot of magical ideas attached to the subject.  Some alchemists were killed by the Spanish Inquisition, because the Church thought alchemy was a dark art at the time.  (The Church both condoned and prohibited alchemy at different times over the field’s lifespan.)

Random fact: If you’ve ever read any historical conspiracy theories, you’ve probably heard of the Rosicrucians.  Most people don’t know that they were invented from whole cloth by a Lutheran theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae, who wrote the original pamphlet about them to satirize the plethora of secret societies that flourished in the early 1600’s.  Europe loved the pamphlet, and then accused Andreae of lying when he said he’d made everything up.

(What’s really amusing is how many later Western occult groups claimed a Rosicrucian legacy.  I read a book fairly recently about the history of a late 19th century magical society called the Golden Dawn.  I didn’t blog about it because it’s a really obscure subject, but the way the group was founded was hysterically funny.  And yes, Rosicrucians were involved!)

The Chemistry of Alchemy was quite enjoyable.  Pick it up if you like histories of science, or even if you just want to recreate 14th-century chemistry experiments at home.  I wish I could.  Maybe I can find a friend with steadier hands to help me…

Categories: HistoryScience


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