Transforming the Alchemists in The New York Times

An Alchemist in His Workshop

“An Alchemist in His Workshop,” by David Teniers II

August 1, 2006 - New York, NY

From The New York Times, August 1, 2006, Science section, p. 1

by John Noble Wilford

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.

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. . . .

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. . . .

(Link to NYT)