Why many historians no longer see alchemy as an occult practice

February 24, 2011 By Phillip F. Schewe
Page from alchemic treatise of Ramon Llull. Credit: Ramon Llull

Alchemy is making a comeback.

No, wizards have not learned how to transmute lead into gold and they haven't found any rejuvenating elixir of life. But the scholars who write the history of science and technology no longer lump alchemy in with witchcraft as a pseudo-science.

Instead they see alchemy as the proper precursor to modern .

The modern word "alchemy" comes from the Arabic word "al kemia," which incorporated a spectrum of knowledge of chemical properties and practices from ancient times.

Chemist and historian Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland believes that the hardworking alchemists of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a period stretching across the 14th to the 17th centuries, were defamed by being lumped in with charlatans of the 19th century, quacks that were often depicted wearing eccentric costumes and casting spells.

"We're in an alchemical revolution," said Principe during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. Principe said that just in the past 30 years articles about alchemy were being accepted into Isis, one of the leading journals devoted to the history of science. Before that a prohibition on alchemical subjects had been in place.

The reason for this change is that historians are now recognizing the huge role alchemists had in producing valuable things, even if the alchemists never succeeded in turning into gold. By the way, making new gold was of great concern to kings since it would have interfered with the valuation of coins. This is why transmutation was considered a crime and why alchemists often had to do their research in secret.

Alchemists did something more important than make new . They were instrumental in the development of many technologies during pre-modern times in Europe. For example, alchemists could be considered as an early form of industrial researcher. William Newman of the University of Indiana points out that alchemists "integrated a host of pursuits that can be loosely labeled 'chemical technologies' with an experimental practice that was linked to various theories about the nature and operations of minerals and metals."

Newman provides plenty of examples. Alchemists, he says, were active in assaying metals, refining salts, making dyes and pigments, making glass and ceramics, artificial fertilizers, perfumes, and cosmetics. An alchemists' shop was often the place in a town where you would go for medicine. Even today in many parts of Europe you go to "the chemist," for medicine, rather than to a "drug store."

Principe said that alchemists perfected the process of distillation, in which a mixed substance is boiled in such a way as to separate out one component by letting a vapor collect in a portion of the apparatus where it can be drawn off. Distillation is of course well known as the means of making spirits like whiskey. But it was also used by alchemists to make powerful acids, which in turn were important for a variety of industrial purposes, such as for separating metals from their ores.

The career of Robert Boyle illustrates the new, more respectful, view of alchemy. Boyle was long considered to be the first major modern chemist, one whose quantitative and careful laboratory practice made him the supposed antithesis of alchemy. But some 17th century documents, fully interpreted by Principe for the first time, show that Boyle was an avid alchemy practitioner.

So was the man often cited as the father of modern physics, Isaac Newton.

Explore further: Team reveals secret life of Isaac Newton on new website

Related Stories

Team reveals secret life of Isaac Newton on new website

June 14, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Sir Isaac Newton, an icon of scientific revelation, led a secret life as a scholar of the mysterious art of alchemy. For the last six years, William Newman has been exploring that hidden life and bringing ...

New transcription reveals Newton's rare 'theory of everything'

December 14, 2006

A new transcription of Isaac Newton's "theory of everything," providing rare insight into the scientist's views on nearly all known natural phenomena, is now available online to scholars around the world, thanks to an Indiana ...

New nano-tool synthesized

April 13, 2010

Two chemists at The Scripps Research Institute have synthesized a new nano-scale scientific tool -- a tiny molecular switch that turns itself on or off as it detects metallic ions in its immediate surroundings.

What is Life

December 18, 2006

At the Astrobiology Science Conference last March, Astrobiology Magazine organized a debate about alien life. Using Peter Ward's book, "Life As We Do Not Know It" as a launching pad, the participants debated everything from ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover new class of chemical reaction

August 14, 2017

August 14, 2017—A new study led by Michael P. Burke, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia Engineering, has identified the significance of a new class of chemical reactions involving three molecules ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.7 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2011
I am glad to see this article, as I agree with the premise that alchemy was the precursor to what we now call chemistry . . . even though the "alchemy" of Issac Newton was a lot of trial and error . . . that for which he was vilified & ostracized. I often give pause to wonder, how much knowledge we have "lost" for want of keeping it secret, and abjectly monopolized and therefore "dying" with the discoverer.

1 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2011
Some historians believe that the egyptians of the pyramids might have had chemical batteries...

Who knows what kind of technology they had...
5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2011
You can't understand alchemy without understanding the historical and philosophical context in which it emerged. To reduce alchemy to "the occult" (as if that has any explanatory power), Jungian psychology, a precursor to chemistry, or an insane attempt to turn base metals into gold (these people were called "puffers" and regarded as golddiggers in the colloquial sense by true alchemists) is all wrong: it was all of these for different people at different times. The general pursuit alchemy was not, however, related directly and only to chemistry.
not rated yet Feb 24, 2011

What you are probably referring to is the disputed Baghdad Battery which was found in Mesopotamia.
not rated yet Feb 24, 2011
"no longer lump alchemy in with witchcraft as a pseudo-science."

BUt Witchcraft never was a pseudo science, it was a study of nature and the foundation of modern religion.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2011
witchcraft as you are refering to it was not the founder of modern religions... the five or six modern religions all have some stem or root that goes back to hinduism Chrisitanity & Islam are offshoots of Judaism. Chrisitanity probably had a little influence form Zorastorism. Judaism looks & feels a lot like a progressive Bhuddism, a lot of similar stories & lessons & the miricale of bhudda's birth & education are mirrored in Christianity with the birth of Jesus from a virgin & his debates with Jewish scholars without formal education. That being said no one will argue that Bhuddism is a simplified Hinduism much like Christianity is a simplified Judaism. the only major player that is not incorporated into this is Toasim and Confusianism which were IMO propogated by the Chinese government to help control and pacify the masses, obedience to the government being a tenent of the religon.

Witchcraft has been the precusor to many of the unsuccessful religions we do not have names for.
not rated yet Feb 25, 2011
Not really, but then I was born in England and the "official" religions you mentioned only arrived there in the last 2000 years.

Witchcraft became proscribed because it could not be controlled by authority, hence the "magical" overtone.

Religion is all about controlling the masses, (politics) whereas traditional witchcraft is about understanding and living with nature (farming, holistic medicine).

Modern witchcraft is about commercialism and sex via the manipulation of simple minded people, sound familliar?
not rated yet Feb 28, 2011
Rulers/Governments did not need to believe in the mythical transmutation of lead to gold to be concerned about such experimenters. You have to think there were counterfeiters then as now attempting to make gold or silver lookalikes or methods of coating or electroplating (if they knew of that; it does not take much current)--that would also be worrisome.

Was not Issac Newton in charge of the mint and an inventor of various anti-counterfeiting measures?
not rated yet Feb 28, 2011
It's my understanding that alchemists were used by the nobility for their ability to counterfiet, using metallurgy to mix other metals with the gold. Double your gold supply!
not rated yet Feb 28, 2011
Seems likely!
5 / 5 (1) Mar 01, 2011
One should not forget Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs' books on the role of Alchemy in Newton's thought! He had left a huge collection of private papers containing more than a million words on Alchemy, mostly in his own handwriting, a part of which was purchased by John Maynard Keynes at a Sotheby's auction.
It is well known that embarrassed Enlightenment-era biographers had simply suppressed mention of his work in alchemy or dismissed it as a recreation, pursued as a diversion from his "real" mathematical physics work.
Dr. Dobbs' carefully researched study shows how Newton's extensive alchemical experiments fed his imagination fruitful ideas to be tried and influenced key elements in his discovery of testable physical laws.
As an example, we could remember the shock his 'action-at-a-distance' caused to his contemporaries as it looked as some kind of witchcraft.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2011
as an academic historian (who has an interest in the history of science) all i can say is: well...duh!
not rated yet Mar 02, 2011
I guess half-hearted praise (in most cases, without much profound understanding of the nature of alchemy) is a start after decades of being told it was allllll hogwash. That much was, no doubt, inevitable once Newton's obsession became widely known.

Who knows, this may actually lead to the end of the (orthodoxy-enforced) dark ages, to some people who actually study the alchemists rationally (without being mocked, possibly even without losing tenure! or being blacklisted!)and actual rational appraisals by competent scholars to replace all that bigotry with just the facts ma'am.

I, for one, will be holding my breath.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 03, 2011
The modern word "alchemy" comes from the Arabic word "al kemia," which incorporated a spectrum of knowledge of chemical properties and practices from ancient times.

To flesh that out a bit... "al kemia" means "from Egypt" or "of Egypt", "Khmet" being the ancient name for Egypt.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.