Alchemists Are Us in Chemistry International

Chemistry International, November 2012

November 5, 2012 - Philadelphia, PA

By Neil Gussman and Michal Meyer

Try as we might to distance ourselves from alchemy and its centuries-old bad reputation, the truth is that these early empiricists laid the foundations of modern chemistry. Many experimental methods and lab practices started life with the alchemists and live on, with refinements, to this day.

Distillation, purifying metals, isolating elements and compounds, and medical analysis were first practiced by alchemists, and then carried into the modern world as experimentalists began to call themselves chemists. The Alchemical Quest, on display at Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia until 7 December, highlights the practical goals of alchemy. The exhibit features rare alchemical books of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries drawn from CHF’s collections. The exhibit also highlights two fathers of modern science, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Their avid involvement in alchemy during their long and productive lives provided a bridge to modern chemistry.

In Chemistry World magazine (UK), December 2004, Vikki Allen writes, “The term alchemy originally referred to an ancient art of spiritual purification and transformation; a way for people to connect with the divine spirits. Although the origins of alchemy vary across the world, in the middle-ages the term became associated with man’s desire to harness nature. Alchemists would strive to turn lead into gold and to produce the elusive ‘elixir of youth.’ “The alchemist’s profession was a mystery and the public viewed it with a mixture of fear and wonder. The alchemical symbols used at the time were unrecognizable to outsiders and the Church discredited the work. But the force of human nature meant the public still wanted what the alchemists were working towards; endless riches and eternal life.” The public image of chemistry in the 21st century is hardly better than this image of alchemy. The public wants the clean water, abundant energy, and advanced materials chemistry can and does deliver, but is generally afraid of the word Chemical.

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