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Winner of the 2005 Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.
What actually took place in the private laboratory of a mid-seventeenth century alchemist? How did he direct his quest after the secrets of Nature? What instruments and theoretical principles did he employ?
Using, as their guide, the previously misunderstood interactions between Robert Boyle, widely known as "the father of chemistry," and George Starkey, an alchemist and the most prominent American scientific writer before Benjamin Franklin as their guide, Newman and Principe reveal the hitherto hidden laboratory operations of a famous alchemist and argue that many of the principles and practices characteristic of modern chemistry derive from alchemy. By analyzing Starkey's extraordinary laboratory notebooks, the authors show how this American "chymist" translated the wildly figurative writings of traditional alchemy into quantitative, carefully reasoned laboratory practice—and then encoded his own work in allegorical, secretive treatises under the name of Eirenaeus Philalethes. The intriguing "mystic" Joan Baptista Van Helmont—a favorite of Starkey, Boyle, and even of Lavoisier—emerges from this study as a surprisingly central figure in seventeenth-century "chymistry." A common emphasis on quantification, material production, and analysis/synthesis, the authors argue, illustrates a continuity of goals and practices from late medieval alchemy down to and beyond the Chemical Revolution.
For anyone who wants to understand how alchemy was actually practiced during the Scientific Revolution and what it contributed to the development of modern chemistry, Alchemy Tried in the Fire will be a veritable philosopher's stone.
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
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Alchemy Tried in the FireStarkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry
By William R. Newman
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 William R. Newman
All right reserved.
ONE - Worlds Apart
"How strangely unseasonable is this Melancholy weather! and how tedious a Winter have we endur'd this Summer?" Thus complained the twenty-one-year-old Robert Boyle during the dismal summer of 1648, a season made doubly miserable by the cold, rainy weather and the confusions of the Second Civil War. That summer, while the city of Colcester was besieged just a few miles to the north, Boyle was staying with his sister Mary and her female relations at Leez in Essex, at the house of her father-in-law, Richard Rich, second earl of Warwick. Although Boyle complained both of the poor weather and of being obliged to spend his time reading romances to the ladies of the house, he still found some hours to devote to his grand project of amending the moral character of his fellow gentry.
Since his return from a Continental grand tour in 1644, the young Boyle had busied himself with the writing of moral and devotional literature. Troubled by everything in his elite society from rouged cheeks and half-bared bosoms to swearing and idleness, he had completed a comprehensive system of "Ethickal Elements," whose bald and rigorous format had"almost frighted most of those I had design'd them to work the quite contrary effects on." To promote his message more effectively, Boyle had begun to improve his style, borrowing elements from the French romances and popular literature he loved so well and producing moralistic epistolary conceits. During the summer of 1648, Boyle worked on the most ambitious of such projects, a set of fictional letters entitled Amorous Controversies. Its intent was to excite devotion to God or, as Boyle termed it, "Seraphicke Love," as a worthy and more valuable substitute for the fragile, fieeting, and ultimately unsatisfying earthly love between the sexes. On the afternoon of Sunday, 6 August 1648, the aristocratic young Robert finished the last strokes of the dedicatory epistle that he wrote to accompany the completed version of the final and culminating letter of the work. As he set down his pen on that Sunday afternoon to join "the whole Constelation of faire Ladies" awaiting him "in the Parke," he had no idea that within a very few years his devotion to devotion would be transmuted into a devotion to experimental natural philosophy or that he would be remembered primarily not as a writer of moral and exhortatory tracts but as an experimental natural philosopher.
Another thing that Boyle did not realize was that three thousand miles to the west, in a distant outpost of English civilization on the edge of the vast wilderness of the New World, another young man (only about sixteen months his junior) had himself the previous Wednesday sent off a letter of his own, but one of a very different nature. The writer was the twenty-year-old George Starkey, the Bermuda-born son of a Scottish minister and a recent graduate of the fledgling Harvard College. The recipient was John Winthrop Jr., who would later become the first governor of Connecticut. The content of Starkey's letter was far from the celestial exhortations of Boyle's Seraphic Love, for in it Starkey asked Winthrop to send or lend him some mercury and some antimony as well as chymical glassware and booksincluding Joan Baptista Van Helmont's De lithiasi and De febribus, the chrysopoeian works of Jean d'Espagnet, and the four-volume collection Theatrum chymicum. Indeed, young Starkey was already involved in practical experimentation involving both chymical medicine and the search for the secret of metallic transmutation. We can learn from Starkey's later publications that even while a teenager in Bermudabefore going to Harvard in 1643the young man had a keen interest in nature, and spent time observing the life cycle of metamorphosing insects.
In that first week of August 1648, those two young men were, in more than one way, an ocean apart. Boyle, the privileged child of Richard, the Great Earl of Cork, had decided to devote his life to amending the morals and piety of his fellow gentry; Starkey, the common Colonial, had devoted himself for four years already to book and laboratory in the search after medicinal and chymical arcana maiora.
Two years later Starkey was preparing to immigrate to England. For six years he had been laboriously attempting to make do in his laboratory with the implements and materials available to him in New England. Dissatisfied with the results, he set sail from Boston in autumn 1650 to London, where glassware, implements, chemicals, and books were more readily available. At the same time, far to the east, Boyle had only recently discovered what he called the "Elysium" of the chymical laboratory, and set about writing a treatise on the "Morall speculations, with which my Chymicall Practises have entertained mee" and a discourse on the theological uses of natural philosophy. At this time, Boyle's primary interest in devotion and morality remained unchanged, but he had discovered a new set of phenomena that could suggest literary and rhetorical images to him. Since the mid-1640s he had been writing "Occasional Reflections"devotional meditations provoked by scriptural readings or casual observations of everyday events. The sights (and presumably the smells) of the chymical laboratory seem to have become a new source of such reflections for Boyle, as expressed, for example, in his eventually published meditation on charity provoked by "distilling Spirit of Roses in a Limbeck."
The paths of these two very different young men did not, however, remain separate. Soon after Starkey's arrival in England he was introduced to the Hartlib circlethe group of reformers, utopians, natural philosophers, and others gathered around the German imigri and intelligencer Samuel Hartlibwith which Boyle had been affiliated since the mid-1640s. On 29 November 1650 Benjamin Worsley, one of the Hartlib circle's important chymical enthusiasts, reported to Hartlib that he had recently met Starkey for the first time. By early December, Hartlib himself had met Starkey and was very impressed by him; indeed, he had heard of Starkey's prowess as a physician and chymist even before the young man had left New England, and entered a report on him in his Ephemerides in early 1650. It was finally through the mediation of Robert Childwho had conveyed reports on Starkey's expertise from New England to Hartlibthat Starkey and Boyle met for the first time around the beginning of 1651. Perhaps this meeting was the result of Boyle's concerns about his health at this time and his fears of having kidney or bladder stones; thus their ?rst meeting may well have been as patient and physician. Indeed, the earliest of Starkey's surviving letters to Boylewritten in April or May 1651enclosed a medicine for the stone, and Hartlib recorded that Starkey had prescribed a medicine for Boyle in January 1651, around the time Boyle and Starkey ?rst met. Immediately after their meeting, as historians have known for some time, Boyle and Starkey began corresponding and collaborating on chymical experiments and preparations. We have Boyle's own published testimony in his Usefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy (published 1663) as well as Starkey's congruent testimony in his own George Starkey's Pill Vindicated that the two collaborated on the preparation of the ens Veneris, a Helmontian pharmaceutical.
At this point, Starkey had been carrying out experimentation since 1644 and so had seven years of experience behind him, while Boyle's work in affairs of the laboratory had been under way for just a little over a year; thus, merely in terms of duration, Starkey was the more experienced laboratory worker at the time of their meeting in 1651. This impression is well corroborated by the vivid depictions of their relative interests and levels of experimental proficiency, experience, and activities recorded in their contemporaneous private writings.
Since the time in his youth when Boyle withdrew to Geneva with his tutor (after the Irish Rebellion brought his father's funding, and consequently his Continental grand tour, to an abrupt end in 1642), Boyle had compiled commonplace books, generally begun on the first day of the year. The earliest of these collections dates from Boyle's 1643 residence in Geneva and survives in a recently rediscovered notebook that the teenaged Boyle used there. Later, more mature examples dating from 1647 to the mid-1650s are preserved among the Boyle Papers. The items from the 1640s reflect Boyle's preoccupations with his moral program; they functioned as repositories of clever rhetorical devices or quotations from his reading that might be either merely memorable or potentially useful in his rhetorically self-conscious moral and devotional writings. For example, Boyle's "Diurnall Collections" of 1647 contains pages of quotations copied from La Calprenhde's lengthy romance Cassandre (1642 45) along with snippets of text from other sources as well as phrases of Boyle's own composition. A similar collection from 1649 preserves ten pages of quotations copied from the manuscript of his brother Roger's romance Parthenissa (the first part of which was published in 1651).
As Michael Hunter has observed in his study of these documents, however, the middle of the year 1649 marks a time of "conversion" in Boyle's interests; the corresponding collection for 1650, entitled "Memorialls Philosophicall," contains no rhetorical material, but is instead entirely devoted to medical receipts. We know from Samuel Hartlib's Ephemerides that Boyle also read at least one chymical book in 1649 and collected one chrysopoetic recipe. Later examples of Boyle's collections, dating from 1652, 1654, and 1655, continue to display medical and chymical materials exclusively. We will examine these collections more thoroughly later, particularly in terms of the receipts in them obtained from Starkey and other Hartlibians. At present, however, the key point is that these materials did not arise from Boyle's own experimentation; rather, they were compendia of other people's resultsitems communicated to him by personal contacts, generally within the Hartlib circle. Boyle own experimental results do not show up until the late 1650s. Nor do there exist other pieces of evidence that might argue for the existence of Boyle's own original natural philosophical or medical experimentation during this early period. Thus, in the early 1650s, although Boyle had in fact begun to have an increased interest in experimentation and had begun to perform some rudimentary operations, he clearly was not yet well versed in experiment or its techniques.
But the situation portrayed in Starkey's contemporaneous notebooks is quite different. One fragment tells us that he had begun his chymical experimentation while still an undergraduate at Henry Dunster's Harvard in the mid-1640s. After starting with a bookish interest in the subject that he was able to pursue in Harvard's environment of tutorial and disputation, Starkey turned to an extended iatrochemical and technological community in Massachusetts for hands-on instruction. The same fragment also reveals that Starkey had resumed laboratory work by February 1651 at the latest within four months of his arrival in Englandand probably earlier. Starkey's letter of April/May 1651 to Boyle excitedly recounts the experimental first fruits of this new laboratory. These first productions of Starkey's London laboratory already include serious and developed approaches to the chief chymical desiderata of the day. Another notebook fragment, written in December 1651, likewise reveals Starkey busy in his laboratory at work on, among other things, the Philosophical Mercury (for making the Philosophers' Stone), the alkahest, and advanced medical arcana. Starkey's 30 May 1651 letter to the Amsterdam chymist Johann Moriaen further corroborates this view of Starkey busy at work in his new English laboratory. Clearly then, at the time of Starkey and Boyle's meeting, and for some time thereafter, Starkey was by far the more active and experienced laboratory experimentalist.
The divergent portraits presented here of these two young mena Starkey skilled in laboratory practice and single-minded in his devotion to chymistry, and a Boyle predominantly a moralist with a perhaps slightly dilettantish interest in chymistryseem at odds with some usual perceptions of Starkey's and Boyle's work, and certainly with the divergent fates the two would receive historically. Indeed, the intervening centuries of history have tended to recreate the ocean that separated them in 1648. In their own day, both enjoyed a measure of fame, but in very different ways. Boyle's eventual fame as a "father of chemistry" (regardless of how seriously we take that title), as a founder of the Royal Society, as a proponent of experimentalism, the mechanical philosophy, and corpuscularianism hardly requires comment and endures to this day. Starkey acquired fame as well; besides his lesser degree of recognition as a London medical practitioner during his own short lifetime, he achieved renown-once-removed as the alchemical adept Eirenaeus Philalethes, a character as celebrated as he was mysterious. The chrysopoetic treatises that Starkey wrote and circulated under the name of this fictive adept achieved enormous popularity and respect and exerted significant influences on such figures as Boyle (who seems never to have discovered that Philalethes was actually Starkey), Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Joachim Becher, Georg Ernst Stahl, Hermann Boerhaave, and a host of other notables. For a time in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries both Starkey (mostly as Philalethes) and Boyle garnered respect and notoriety for their respective natural philosophical and experimental endeavors; but this situation did not persist. The progressive segregation of "chemistry" and "alchemy" served to erect a partition between Boyle and Starkey/Philalethes, and with the eighteenth-century repudiation of alchemy as simply fraudulent, and later as "nonscientific," "pseudoscientific," and even "occult," Starkey (along with Philalethes) slipped into the shadows beyond the fringe of scientific respectability. Starkey/Philalethes came to be seen as the last of an alchemical line, being called by one prominent historian of science "the last great philosophical alchemist of the seventeenth century," while Boyle came to stand at the vanguard of the "New Chemistry."
This division between Boyle and Starkeyand the division between an alchemical past and a chemical future of which it is emblematicare problematic. The problem with these divisions is thrown into relief by our knowledge of the communication and collaboration that went on between Boyle and Starkey in the 1650s. Despite the very different depictions of them in the secondary literature, Boyle and Starkey wereat least for a timeinterested in the same issues and pursued the same goals. The world of Starkey and the world of Boyle, of a supposedly ancient alchemy and of a modern chemistry, seem to coexist. The problem becomes yet more acute when we consider the biographical depictions presented above, wherein Starkey is clearly the more experienced and dedicated chymical experimentalist of the two, and is further intensified by the fact that, as we shall show later in this study, Starkey was Boyle's primary tutor in chymistry.
Recent historical scholarship has begun to bridge the seeming gulf between the likes of Starkey and the likes of Boyle. We now know that the clean division of alchemy from chemistry, which seemed so "obvious" at first glance a generation ago, did not exist for most in the seventeenth century.
Excerpted from Alchemy Tried in the Fire by William R. Newman Copyright © 2005 by William R. Newman. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures
Chapter 1 - Worlds Apart
Boyle's Portrayal of His Relationship to Chymistry
Chapter 2 - Number, Weight, Measure, and Experiment in Chymistry: From the Medievals to Van Helmont
Testing, Analysis, and Assaying in Late Medieval Alchemy
Alexander von Suchten and the Sixteenth-Century Synthesis of Chymical Traditions
Joan Baptista Van Helmont: Art, Nature, and Experiment
Chapter 3 - Theory and Practice: Starkey's Laboratory Methodology
The Use and Format of Starkey's Notebooks
Starkey's Experimental Methodology: Conjectural Processes and Fiery Refutations
Quantitative Methods and Analyses in Transmutational Alchemy
The Volatilization of Alkalies and Starkey's Grand Design for Medicine
Chapter 4 - Scholasticism, Metallurgy, and Secrecy in the Laboratory: The Style and Origin of Starkey's Notebooks
Sources of Starkey's Industrial Chymistry
The Structure of Starkey's Laboratory Notebooks
Starkey and Textual Authority
The Place of Divine Authority in the Laboratory
Chapter 5 - Starkey, Boyle, and Chymistry in the Hartlib Circle
George Starkey and the Development of Boyle's Early Chymistry
The Role of Benjamin Worsley in Boyle's “Chymical Education”
Hartlib's “Chymical Son” Frederick Clodius and Boyle
Chapter 6 - The Legacy of Van Helmont's and Starkey's Chymistry: Boyle, Homberg, and the Chemical Revolution
The Chymistry of Salts in Boyle and Van Helmont
A Helmontian Background to the Chemical Revolution