Andreas Libavius

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Andreas Libavius

1540?-1616

German Alchemist

The alchemist Andreas Libavius is often considered the author of the first chemistry textbook. Contrary to the beliefs of many alchemists, he promoted the idea that the scientific discoveries should be shared openly, rather than kept secret.

Libavius was born in about 1540 in Halle, Germany, where his father was a linen weaver. At this time, children of working class parents were rarely allowed to attend universities. Usually, the only people to receive an advanced education were those who had been born into wealthy families. Despite his family's background, Libavius began attending the University of Wittenberg at the age of eighteen. This fact suggests to historians that he must have shown signs of great intelligence and been very determined to receive an education.

Libavius later attended the University of Jena, where he studied history, philosophy, and medicine. He completed his medical degree there in 1581. For several years, he taught history and poetry at the University of Jena, and then, from 1591 to 1596, he worked as a town physician. In 1605, he helped to found a school in the city of Coburg, where he remained until his death his death in 1616.

Libavius is best known, however, not as a physician or as a professor, but as an alchemist. Alchemy was a primitive science whose main goals were the discovery of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. The philosopher's stone would supposedly allow alchemists to create gold from other metals, and the elixir of life was thought to be a potion that would cure all diseases. Although these goals proved to be unachievable, alchemy would eventually evolve into modern chemistry.

Libavius believed that alchemy would prove to have benefits to physicians, and most of his chemical work was concerned with its reference to medicine. He wrote books on numerous scientific topics, but his most important was titled Alchemia (Alchemy), which was published in 1597. This book summarized the discoveries that alchemists had made up to that date. Later editions of the book were more than 2,000 pages long and contained 200 illustrations.

Many alchemists wished to cloak their findings in mystery and secrecy. They felt their work had religious power and therefore should not fall into the wrong hands. Libavius's writing, however, was clear and meant to be easily understood. In his book, he describes alchemy as being "valuable in medicine, in metallurgy [the science of metals] and in daily life." In other words, he saw alchemy (and chemistry) as having a practical value beyond its lofty goals.

Libavius also organized his book in a systematic manner. Alchemia is divided into four parts. The first part describes the equipment needed for a chemistry laboratory, such as furnaces, vials, and mortars. It also includes descriptions of chemical procedures, such as distillation—a method of separating liquids based on their boiling points. The second part of Alchemia gives instructions, or recipes, for preparing certain chemicals. The third describes several early methods of chemical analysis—ways of determining the composition of chemicals. For example, Libavius explained that some copper-containing chemicals would turn blue when placed in a solution of ammonia. Therefore, this test could often be used to detect the presence of copper.

The first three parts of the book contain information that clearly belongs to the science of chemistry. The final part of the book, however, belongs strictly to alchemy. It discusses the theory of transmutation, a change of one type of matter directly into another. For example, it was thought that the philosopher's stone would transmute so-called base metals such as lead and tin into gold. Libavius (incorrectly) considered many types of chemical reactions to be a form of transmutation. Today, however, scientists know that transmutation can occur only in very special circumstances, such as those involving some types of radioactivity.

In addition to his writing on alchemy, Libavius performed chemical experiments of his own. He discovered methods of preparing several important chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, ammonium sulfate (now used as fertilizer), and tin tetrachloride. Because tin tetrachloride gives off fumes when it is exposed to the water vapor in air, alchemists named it "fuming liquor of Libavius."

During Libavius's life, chemistry experiments were usually conducted by private individuals using their own equipment (and often their own homes). To solve this problem, Libavius drew up plans for a building containing a series of laboratories where chemical experiments could be carried out. This "chemical house" could be considered a forerunner of the modern chemical laboratory. The plans included a storeroom, a room where chemicals would be prepared, an assistant's room, a crystallization and freezing room, a fuel room, and a wine cellar (wine was used as a source of alcohol in experiments). Libavius, however, did not live to see his chemical house, or others like it, constructed.

STACEY R. MURRAY

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