Isaac Newton's Index Chemicus

An international conference taking place at Cambridge University later this week will reveal that for many centuries alchemy and medicine were deeply intertwined - both in theory and practice.

Strict boundaries between alchemy and what we now call ‘chemistry’, ‘science’ or ‘medicine’ did not exist in early modern Europe.

Dr Jenny Rampling

In popular culture alchemy is portrayed as the stuff of sorcery and skulduggery with the madcap alchemist presiding over cauldrons of bubbling liquids. Yet the image of the alchemist as a solitary figure on the margins of society is only one part of a far more complex story: a way of making sense of the world that emerged in Egypt in the first centuries of the Christian era. Alchemy percolated through Middle Eastern and Western history right up to the 18th century, when the study of matter became part of the new academic discipline of chemistry. Along the way, alchemists played a key role in shaping another discipline – medicine.

Some of the world’s leading scholars on the history of science and medicine will gather this week to unpick the lost alchemical strands of Western culture at a major conference taking place at Cambridge University. The meeting, Alchemy and Medicine from Antiquity to Enlightenment, will be the first of its kind to bring together leading experts on medieval and Renaissance medicine, such as Nancy Siraisi, recipient of a prestigious MacArthur grant at City University of New York, with the world’s foremost alchemy scholars, including William Newman, based at Indiana University and an expert on Isaac Newton’s alchemy.

The meeting will also reveal new findings by junior scholars – from Gabriele Ferrario, who is literally piecing together the secrets of Hebrew alchemy from fragments of manuscripts in Cambridge University’s Genizah collection, to Tuna Artun, a PhD student at Princeton University, who is tracing alchemy and medicine at the 17th-century Ottoman Court.

The meeting will challenge the notion that alchemists were magicians or frauds, primarily concerned with making gold, and help to foster a new understanding of the place of alchemy in the pre-modern world. Speakers will show how alchemists were active and influential at all levels of society: men and women who used alchemical ideas as a way of seeking material, medical, and spiritual perfection, as well as wordly success. Some were artisans who borrowed techniques from other crafts, their names now lost to obscurity; while others hobnobbed with popes and princes.

Alchemy also held fascination for thinkers who are now associated with the rise of modern science. In the early 20th century, scholars were shocked to discover just how deeply Isaac Newton, regarded as one of the founders of modern physics, was obsessed by alchemy. His notebooks contain over a million words on the subject of alchemy – more than he ever wrote on physics – and reveal his meticulous study of transmutation and the ‘vegetation’ of metals in his laboratory in Trinity College.

Yet the secrets of alchemy’s success lay in the search for medical remedies as much as the quest for gold. At a time when life was precarious and often cut short by diseases, from leprosy to the Black Death, alchemists struggled to gain insight into the workings of the universe and the human body. Alchemy offered the ‘panacea’ – a medicine capable of healing all diseases. Unsurprisingly, many medical practitioners were also alchemists, employed as personal physicians by European monarchs from James I of England to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II.

“It takes a massive leap of imagination for us in the 21st century even to attempt to see the world as alchemical practitioners did,” said Dr Jennifer Rampling, a research fellow at Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and one of the conference organisers. “For instance, strict boundaries between alchemy and what we now call ‘chemistry’, ‘science’ or ‘medicine’ did not exist in early modern Europe. If a doctor prepared medicines using an alchemical process, was he doing medicine or alchemy? Historians may argue about that now, but these debates may have seemed nonsensical to the physician.”

In early modern manuscripts, medical and alchemical recipes are often found side by side. “When we look at these writings, we find that even metallic transmutation could be seen in medical terms,” said Dr Rampling. “Chemical reactions, such as dissolution or coagulation, were described in terms of human reproduction, sickness, death, and rebirth. And medicinal elixirs created by distilling liquids – such as vinegar and wine – were sometimes thought to transform metals as well as prolonging human life and renewing youth. These remedies went beyond conventional medical practice, because they relied on alchemical explanations of chemical change and the attainment of very simple, ‘perfect’ substances that could not occur in nature.”

It’s tempting to assume that alchemy and the world view it cultivated somehow morphed into what we know as modern science by a process of pushing back the boundaries of empirical knowledge – but the truth is far more complex. “Practising alchemists took a ‘hands on’ approach to nature,” said Dr Rampling. “They were getting their hands dirty with furnaces and chemical substances while other scholars pursued more abstract speculations. This might sound like useful empirical investigation to us, but alchemy’s practical dimension didn’t always count in its favour – in medieval Europe, theoretical disciplines had more prestige than manual labour, and alchemy was never formally accepted into the university curriculum.”

The hands-on aspect is another quality that alchemy shared with medicine, although physicians were more successful in establishing their subject within medieval universities. Medicine became part of the academic mainstream: taught at universities, and was regulated by guilds and colleges of physicians. In the meantime, alchemists increasingly adopted the language of secrecy, passing their secrets down through encoded texts, or by teaching apprentices.

Much of the literature pertaining to alchemy is written using elaborate allegories or codes intended to preserve the secrecy of recipes. “To understand what alchemists were actually doing, you have to navigate their writings. Sometimes the key to reading one passage lies in a completely different text or tradition: that’s why it is so important for researchers to share their areas of expertise. The conference is an exciting opportunity for experts in different fields to help put the pieces of this huge puzzle back together,” said Dr Rampling.

The conference will look both at the big picture in terms of the emergence of disciplinary identities, such pharmacy, medicine and chemistry, and at the fine grained detail of how ingredients, practices and apparatus were devised and shared by alchemists and doctors. Participants will also look for common themes linking different historical periods – from Islamic Persia to Enlightenment France – as well as changes and new developments. In doing so, they will be pooling a wide range of skills.

Research into the history of both alchemy and medicine depends on a grasp of a whole gamut of disciplines, from knowledge of languages, including Arabic, Latin and Greek, to an understanding of shifting culture and politics, theology, literature and art. Some basic chemistry also helps. To get a feel for the practices described in their sources, researchers have recently been recreating some of the recipes and techniques described in contemporary documents.

Manuscript collections at the British Library, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the University Library in Cambridge contain many hundreds of alchemical and medical recipes, which modern scholars can attempt to decode. To learn more about a medicinal elixir called the “vegetable stone,” Dr Rampling is attempting to follow the 15th-century process in a modern lab.

“One of the biggest challenges for alchemists and their patrons was working out which ingredients to start with,” she said. “The ‘vegetable stone’ seems to have begun as a recipe using lead compounds, but sometimes practitioners interpreted ‘lead’ as a codename for something else, which they then tested. Sometimes, a completely new process might result.”

A workshop run in conjunction with the conference will give a group of graduate students and early career researchers the chance to emulate the alchemists by honing both their textual and practical skills. They will examine some of Isaac Newton’s own alchemical notebooks, including his ‘Index chemicus’ of chemical substances, now held by King’s College Library. A session held at the Department of Chemistry will then allow the researchers to try their hand at recreating some early electrochemical experiments, guided by Hasok Chang, Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge.

“Sometimes you need to know what reactions look like in order to understand early chemical texts, and to appreciate the problems faced by early modern experimenters. So lab work is sometimes as much about history as it is about science,” said Dr Rampling. “We hope that the combination of hands-on sessions and the range of presentations will help researchers make connections between their own work and that being done in other fields. Maybe we can stimulate a bit of intellectual chemistry of our own!”

The conference Alchemy and Medicine from Antiquity to the Enlightenment takes place at the University of Cambridge 22-24 September.  A postgraduate workshop in the History of Alchemy and Chemistry will take place on 21 September. The conference is sponsored and adminstered by CRASSH. The organisers are Dr Jenny Rampling, Peter Jones and Lauren Kassell.

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