Historians of science are taking a new and lively interest in alchemy, the often mystical investigation into the hidden mysteries of nature that reached its heyday in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been an embarrassment to modern scientists ever since.
Christopher Stanwood, a librarian at the Historical Chemical Library in Philadelphia, looking over an old text during a conference on alchemy.
There was no place in the annals of empirical science, beginning mainly in the 18th century, for the occult practices of obsessed dreamers who sought most famously and impossibly to transform base metals into pure gold. So alchemy fell into disrepute.
But in the revival of scholarship on the field, historians are finding reasons to give at least some alchemists their due. Even though they were secretive and self-deluded and their practices closer to magic than modern scientific methods, historians say, alchemists contributed to the emergence of modern chemistry as a science and an agent of commerce.
“Experimentalism was one of alchemy’s hallmarks,” said Lawrence M. Principe, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University and a trained chemist. “You have to get your hands dirty, and in this way alchemists forged some early ideas about matter.”
Bent over boiling crucibles in their shadowy laboratories, squeezing bellows before transformative flames and poring over obscure formulas, some alchemists stumbled on techniques and reactions of great value to later chemists. It was experimentation by trial and error, historians say, but it led to new chemicals and healing elixirs and laid the foundations of procedures like separating and refining, distilling and fermenting.
“What do chemists do? They like to make stuff,” Dr. Principe said. “Most chemists are interested not so much in theory as in making substances with particular properties. The emphasis on products was the same with some alchemists in the 17th century.”
Pamela H. Smith, a history professor at Columbia, said alchemy “was the matter theory of its day” and was “incredibly multilayered and therefore a powerful way of viewing nature.”
Yet on the whole, historians say, the widespread practice of alchemy impeded the rise of modern chemistry. While physics and astronomy marched slowly but inexorably from Galileo to Kepler to Newton and the Scientific Revolution, chemistry slumbered under alchemy’s influence through what historians call its “postponed scientific revolution.”
The new research and revised interpretations concerning the role of alchemy in the history of chemistry as well as pharmacology and medicine were discussed at a three-day conference late last month at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The meeting, attended by more than 80 scientists and historians, was organized by Dr. Principe, who said, “Only in the last 15 or 20 years have we learned how crucial alchemy was to the emergence of modern science.”
No one at the meeting tried to turn lead into gold. But the historians conjured up quite a lode of pyrite, fool’s gold, in the colorful characters they had found buried in previously neglected archives.
A few practicing alchemists, it seems, may have been certifiably mad — probably, like mad hatters, from sniffing the mercury they worked with.
One notable alchemist of the 16th century, a Swiss named Paracelsus, was not mad, but cantankerous and iconoclastic. “He was equal parts metallurgist, pharmacist, physician and crackpot,” Dr. Principe said.
Historians have found that Paracelsus made some advances in the detection of disorders by analyzing urine and claimed marvelous cures through alchemy.
In his chemical cosmology, he saw the world as a great distillation vessel and its changes as parallel to the operations carried out in a laboratory. But he recorded his material and spiritual ideas in the deliberately opaque writing typical of many alchemists, who expressed themselves in codes, symbols and emblems to conceal their findings from the uninitiated.
From his study, Dane Thor Daniel of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, concluded that Paracelsus’s unwavering objective was to find a Christian alternative to pagan natural philosophy — science.
Other alchemists were outright charlatans or fools, ridiculed in contemporary art and literature. On display in a gallery at the conference hall were several 17th-century paintings by Flemish and Dutch artists, who depicted alchemists toiling in the disorder of dark workshops and the poverty of futile quests. The paintings were said to be popular among Dutch burghers as a caution to anyone contemplating a life in alchemy instead of steady trade.
But many an alchemist drew support from royal courts where visions of new-found wealth and power danced in crowned heads. It was not always a happy alliance.