Starkey, George

views updated May 21 2018


(b. Bermuda, 1628; d. London, England, 1665), medicine, alchemy. For the original article on Starkey see DSB, vol. 12.

The original DSB entry on George Starkey suggested that he was the “probable author” of the highly popular alchemical treatises ascribed to Eirenaeus Philalethes. This rather provisional claim can now be affirmed with much greater certainty, thanks to extensive research done on Starkey’s correspondence and laboratory notebooks.

Starkey as Philalethes The central processes concealed in the highly allusive Philalethes treatises are expressed in plain language in a letter composed by Starkey, probably in 1651, and sent by him to his patron Robert Boyle. Most of these processes are also laid out in Starkey’s laboratory notebooks, especially the important document British Library Sloane MS 3750, where Starkey identifies his major source as the Prussian chymist Alexander von Suchten. Starkey’s claim that he received the secret of chrysopoeia (alchemical gold-making) from an anonymous friend still living in New England, the putative author of the Philalethes tracts, was clearly a mystification that he promulgated in order to increase his standing in the technical and scientific circle centered on Samuel Hartlib in Interregnum London. Although Starkey himself was the author behind the pseudonym of Philalethes, the young American did in fact receive important information on chymistry from a variety of sources while he was still living in New England. His education at Harvard College introduced him to important components of alchemical theory, as found in contemporary natural philosophy treatises such as those of Jonathan Mitchell and William Ames. Along with his classmate John Alcocke, Starkey was initiated into the practice of alchemy by the obscure Richard Palgrave, a physician of Charlestown. Equally important, Starkey learned valuable metallurgical secrets from investors and employees of the Hammersmith ironworks at Saugus, which was in full operation during his time in New England. Among these figures were William White, Robert Child, Richard Leader, and John Winthrop Jr. The unique combination of Starkey’s Harvard education and the technical and medical knowledge acquired in New England allowed the young immigrant to be received as a sort of wunderkind upon his arrival in London in 1650.

Influence on Boyle and Newton Despite the fact that Boyle is nowhere mentioned in the original DSB article on Starkey, the young American in fact had a direct and immediate impact on the British “naturalist.” Considerable evidence has emerged to support the claim first made by William Newman in Gehennical Fire(1994) that Starkey was Boyle’s chymical tutor. Manuscripts kept in the Royal Society and the Bodleian Library reveal that Boyle was copying entries from Starkey’s notebooks under the direct supervision of the latter. One manuscript even contains entries by Starkey that are overlaid in Boyle’s early hand (Bodleian Library, MS Locke c. 29). The relationship of the two youthful researchers is further clarified by Boyle’s comments in his Usefulness of Natural Philosophy to the effect that Boyle was subsidizing Starkey’s experimentation on ens veneris, a medicament described allusively by the Belgian chymist Joan Baptista van Hel-mont. Starkey was undoubtedly the most influential of Boyle’s various Helmontian contacts, and significant traces of the training that the latter received from the New England chymist can still be found in Boyle’s mature oeuvre. Boyle’s work on the classification of salts into the three categories of urinous, alkalizate, and acid owes a particular debt to the Helmontian chymistry reformulated and transmitted by Starkey.

Perhaps an even more striking testament to the unsuspected degree of Starkey’s influence in the seventeenth century has emerged as a result of the scholarship devoted over the last generation to Isaac Newton’s alchemy. Unlike Boyle, Newton seems never to have met Starkey in person. Nonetheless, under the guise of Eire-naeus Philalethes, Starkey exercised a remarkable influence on Newton over a period of some thirty years. Newton’s cross-referencing tool, the Index chemicus, is filled with references to Philaelethes—by Richard West-fall’s count, Starkey’s pseudonym gets more billing in the Index chemicus than any other author. Even Newton’s published comments on chymistry, such as Query 31 of the Opticks and the short De natura acidorum, contain significant signs of Starkey’s influence, especially in the area of Newton’s corpuscular matter theory. Like Newton in his chymical writings, Starkey espoused a theory that matter at the micro level is made up of complex corpuscles forming shells around a simpler nucleus; both Newton and Starkey associate these shells with the mercury and sulfur of traditional alchemy. Although Newton exercised significant modifications on the chrysopoetic practice that he derived from Starkey, one can also clearly make out the heavy influence of the Philalethes treatises in Newton’s experimental laboratory notebooks as well (Cambridge University MSS Add. 3973 and 3975).

Reputation It is ironic that despite Starkey’s literary, medical, and scientific attainments, his reputation suffered as the fame of Philalethes grew. Starkey himself had written numerous polemical writings under his own name, such as the Helmontian diatribes Natures Explication and Helmont’s Vindication(1657) and Pyrotechny Asserted and Illustrated (1658). It was in these works as well as in shorter pamphlets that Starkey railed against the “piss-pot prophets” of orthodox medical practice. As a result of his invective, as well as his apparently immoderate drinking, Starkey developed an unsavory reputation in some circles. This allowed his detractors to capitalize on the very story that Starkey himself had created about Philalethes, namely that Starkey was only the intermediary, rather than the author, of the Philalethan corpus. Hence Johann Heinrich Cohausen, the author of Hermippus redivivus(1742), described Starkey as a “vicious and extravagant man,” unlike Philalethes, who was “a Man of remarkable Piety,” while the chymical chronicler Olaus Borrichius described Starkey in his De ortu et progressu chemiae: Dissertatio(1668) as a drunkard and liar who had merely exploited Philalethes for his own sophistical purposes. Despite these unflattering and misleading comments, Starkey clearly deserves to be accorded a high position among the seventeenth-century practitioners of chymistry. His work displays a keen gravimetric awareness, in accordance with the principle of mass balance, which had received its first clear enunciation in the works of Starkey’s avatar van Helmont. In Starkey’s work one can find unequivocal adumbrations of the gravimetric “balance-sheet” method immortalized by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. Under his Philalethan guise, Starkey would exercise considerable influence in the environs of the French Académie des Sciences, where writers such as Wilhelm Homberg would refine and transmit his innovative quantitative analyses to a subsequent generation of scientists who had divested themselves of the dream of chrysopoeia but in every other respect remained the heirs of early modern chymistry



Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence. Edited by William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Starkey’s previously unpublished correspondence and laboratory notebooks.


Newman, William R. “Newton’s Clavis as Starkey’s ‘Key.’” Isis 78 (1987): 564–574.

———. “The Authorship of the Introitus apertus ad occlusum Regis palatium.” In Alchemy Revisited, edited by Z. R. W. M. von Martels, 139–144. Leiden, Netherlands and New York: E.J. Brill, 1990.

———. “The Corpuscular Transmutational Theory of Eirenaeus Philalethes.” In Alchemy and Chemistry in the 16th and 17th Centuries, edited by Piyo Rattansi and Antonio Clericuzio, 161–182. Dordrecht, Netherlands and Boston: Kluwer, 1994.

———. Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994; republished with a new foreword, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

———. “George Starkey and the Selling of Secrets.” In Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation, edited by Mark Greengrass, Michael Leslie, and Timothy Raylor, 193–210. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

———. “‘ Decknamen or Pseudochemical Language’? Eirenaeus Philalethes and Carl Jung.” Revue d’Histoire des Sciences49 (1996): 159–188.

Newman, William R., and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

———. “The Chymical Laboratory Notebooks of George Starkey.” In Reworking the Bench: Research Notebooks in the History of Science, edited by Frederic L. Holmes, Jürgen Renn, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, 25–41. Dordrecht, Netherlands and Boston: Kluwer, 2003.

Principe, Lawrence M. “Apparatus and Reproducibility in Alchemy.” In Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry, edited by Frederic L. Holmes and Trevor H. Levere, 55–74. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

William R. Newman

Starkey, George

views updated Jun 27 2018


(b. Bermuda, 1628; d, London, England. (1665)

medicine, alchemy.

Starkey, who used his family name Stirk until adopting the more familiar cognomen found on his title pages, was the son of George Stirk, a Puritan minister in Bermuda, and Elizabeth Painter. During his youth he developed an interest in natural history and devised experiments to test the theory of the spontaneous generation of insects. While a student at Harvard College, he began the study of medicine and alchemy and was soon attracted to Helmont’s doctrines. He graduated in 1646, took the master’s degree, and practiced medicine in the Boston area, where he married a daughter of Israel Stoughton. Sometimes relying on his friend John Winthrop, Jr., for books, chemicals, and apparatus, he pursued research along Helmontian lines.

In 1650 Starkey emigrated to England. Associating with Samuel Hartlib’s circle of investigators, he engaged in a wide range of experiments, including the production of alchemical metals and the preparation of chemical medicines. Starkey told Hartlib’s friends of his contact with an “adept” in New England from whom he supposedly had obtained the secret of transmutation and a number of unpublished alchemical treatises. The account was expanded and clothed in more mystification as part of Starkey’s contribution to alchemical verse, The Marrow of Alchemy (1654–1655).

With the publication of Natures Explication and Helmont’s Vindication (1657), Starkey entered the dispute between those physicians who adhered to the “Paracelsian compromise” and those who advocated more frequent use of chemical remedies. Starkey’s book, an outspoken defense of Helmontian doctrines, was followed by Pyrotechny Asserted and Illustrated (1658), in which he continued the style of rhetoric that won him the friendship only a small fraternity. Starkey claimed that his books were based on the experimental method and a desire to reform the state of medicine, but only vague processes were given for his medicaments.

After a brief excursion into the polemical exchange accompanying the Restoration, Starkey returned to iatrochemical controversies. He frequently resorted to print to combat fellow chemical practitioners, both to secure priority for his own medicines and to condemn those whose preparations invited censure of the chemical cause. A last exchange with the so-called “Galenists” was cut short by the Plague in 1665. Starkey remained in London to treat victims of the disease, of which he himself died at an unknown date.

During his lifetime, only one of his “American” alchemical manuscripts was published, apparently without his permission, but a number of treatises were printed after his death under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes. Several of these works on the theory and practice of transmutation and related matters became classics of alchemical literature, especially the Introitus apertus (1667 appeared in English as Secrets Reveal’d (1669) Evidence points to Starkey as the probable author of the tracts, although John Winthrop, Jr., may have served as the inspiration for the story of the New England adept.


I .Original Works. Starkey’s The Marrow of Alchemy (London, 1654– 1655) was published in 2 pts, under the pseudonym “Eirenaeus Philoponos Philalethes,” Natures Explication and Helmont’s Vindication (London, 1657) and Pyrotechny Asserted and Illustrated (London, 1658) were followed by political publications concerning the Restoration. Other polemical tracts were The Admirable Efficacy, and Almost Incredible Virtue of True Oyl, Which is Made of Sulphur-Vive (London, 1660), George Starkeys Pill Vindicated From the Unlearned Alchymist [London, 1663 or 1664]; A Brief Examination and Censure of Several Medicines (London, 1664); and A Smart Scourge for a Silly. Sawcy Fool ([London], 1664). Starkey’s An Epistolar Discourse to the Learned and Deserving Author of GalenoPale was printed with George Thomson’s IIAANOIINITMOΣ or, a Gag for Johnson (London, 1665), Liquor Alchahest (London, 1675), J. Astell, ed., was a posthumous work.

The most influential of the “Phrialethes” essays was Introitus apertus (Amsterdam, 1667), printed in English as Secrets Reveal’d (London. 1669); also important are those collected in W. Cooper, ed., Ripley Reviv’d (London, 1678), Others are in M. Birrius, ed., Tres tractatus de metallorum transmutatione (Amsterdam, 1668), and in W. Cooper, ed., Opus tripartitum de philosophorum arcanis (London, 1678). Philalethes’ The Secret of the Immortal Liquor Called Alkahest (London, 1683) was advertised as a separate imprint by bookseller William Cooper and was included in his Collectanea chymica (London, 1684).

II . Secondary Literature. On Starkey, see the following, listed chronologically: John L. Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, I (Cambridge, Mass., 1873), 131–137; John Ferguson, “The Marrow of Alchemy,” in Journal of the Alchemical Society,3 (1915), 106–129; George H. Turnbull, “George Stirk, Philosopher by Fire,” in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 38 (1949), 219–251; Ronald S. Wilkinson.“George Starkey, Physician and Alchemist,” in Ambix, II (1963). 121–152: and “The Problem of the Identity of Eirenaeus Philalethes,” ibid., 12 (1964 24–43; J. W. Hamilton-Jones, “The Identity of Eirenaeus Philalethes,” ibid.,13 (1965), 52–53; Ronald S. Wilkinson, “The Hartlib Papers and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry, Part II : George Starkey,” ibid., 17 (1970), 85–110; “Further Thoughts on the Identity of Eirenaeus Philalethes,” ibid., 19 (1972), 204–208; “Some Bibliographical Puzzles Concerning George Starkey,” ibid., 20 (1973), 235–244; and “George Starkey, an Early Seventeenth-Century American Entomologist,” in Great Lakes Entomologist, 6 (1973), 59–64. The most recent discussion of the Philalethes matter is in Wilkinson. The Younger John Winthrop and Seventeenth-Century Science (London, 1975), ch. 6.

Ronald S. Wilkinsson

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George Starkey