Chemistry: The Practice of Alchemy

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Chemistry: The Practice of Alchemy


Alchemy was a form of early chemistry that aimed to transmute base metals into gold and to create an elixir of longevity or eternal life. Alchemy emerged in China in the fourth century BC and developed over centuries, laying a foundation for the modern science of chemistry. Social conventions, economics, and royal patronage affected alchemy's long history and development.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Chinese Alchemy

The earliest record of alchemy is from China in the fourth century BC, and its practice was associated with the religion and philosophy of Taoism created by the sage Lao Tzu. The tao is a form of prime matter that is infinitely changeable, and the matter that the tao composes is described in terms of opposites. Yin is the passive female element that is cool and dark, and yang is the hot and light male element. The interaction and opposition between yin and yang was thought to produce the elements. Earth was the central element, while others were thought to be opposing pairs, such as fire and water, metal and wood. Taoist alchemists thought that by changing the proportions of these elements it was possible to transform matter.

Metals in particular were considered a product of chi (the life force that governs the body). Deep within the earth, chi was thought to create and incubate metals until they reached maturity. The most mature and perfect metal was gold. A form of drinkable or potable gold was considered by Chinese alchemists to be an elixir of immortal life, containing infinite chi and life-energy.

In their work, Chinese alchemists discovered processes such as metallic jewelry making, metallurgy, the development of furnaces, the making of alloys (including mosaic gold), and the development of gunpowder. Some of these ideas or processes may have reached the west via India, Greece, or the Arab world as early as the fourth century BC via trade or the cultural interactions in warfare. Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) was pushing eastward from Greece in his conquests at about the same time that Chinese alchemy began to flourish.

By 144 BC, Chinese alchemy was only openly practiced under royal patronage. Historical accounts note that in 135 BC alchemy was performed at the imperial Chinese courts by Li Shao-chün (c. second century BC). He had the reputation of being able to predict future events, transforming cinnabar powder (mercuric sulfide) into the golden elixir of life, and creating life-extending golden cups and bowls for drinking and eating. Li Shao-chün also advised the emperor to worship the Stove, a demi-goddess clothed in red garments with her head done up in a knot on the top of her head. She was the divinity responsible for cooking and brewing, as well as alchemy.

Although Chinese alchemy had as it primary goal the extension of life, the production of gold to create wealth was also of interest. In 56 BC, Liu Hsiang (77–6 BC), a courtier and scholar, attempted to make alchemical gold with the express patronage of the emperor, the resources of the Chinese imperial treasury, and the “recipes of immortality” provided by legendary predecessors. His utter failure may have lead to the enactment of laws forbidding alchemical practice in the Han dynasty from AD 9 until the third century and the eventual decline of alchemy in China.

The Ancient Greeks

While the Chinese alchemists were searching for the elixir of life and developing practical applications, the ancient Greek philosophers were searching for the elemental principles of matter. Their initial inquiries took place at Miletus on the coast of Ionia in the sixth century BC. Thales of Miletus (c.624–546 BC) taught that “all things are water,” as water could be in the form of solids (ice), liquid, and gas (steam). Thales also thought that Earth was a flat disc floating on an infinite ocean. Earth was formed out of the oceans by having dirt piled up on top of it, similar to the silting he had observed in Egypt at the delta of the Nile River.

His colleague Anaximenes (c.585–c.528 BC) had similar beliefs, thinking all things came from air, and using examples of condensation and rarefaction (a decrease in air density and pressure as a soundwave passes) to explain material changes of state. We also think that Thales was the teacher of Anaximander (c.610 BC–c.546 BC). Anaximander also thought all of creation could be derived from a natural substance, not an element like water or air, but something called the apeiron or the boundless, a sort of a primal stuff. Anaximander stated that the apeiron was “the source of things that are—it is that from in which the coming to be of things takes place, and to which it returns when they perish.”

Though some ancient Greek philosophers asserted the world was made of a homogeneous substance, like water, or air, or the apieron, how was it possible then to account for diversity and change in the natural world? From the sixth to the third centuries BC, the main preoccupation of philosophers in the Greek world was to explain change, but reconcile it with the idea that the universe also possesses constant eternal qualities. This debate and analysis of what is changing and what is constant led to the first ideas of elements and atoms.

In his attempts to explain change, the philosopher Empedocles (c.495 BC–c.435 BC) dismissed the idea of the apeiron. He stated instead that there are four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) that compose everything, and that their interactions cause change, just as all colors can be created by mixing three primary colors in appropriate proportions.

Other philosophers such as Leucippus (c. fifth century BC) and his pupil Democritus (460–370 BC) also believed that matter was made of component parts, but they postulated that these particles were characterless, infinitely small bits that interacted randomly in empty space to produce matter. These particles were called atoms from the Greek word atomon, meaning that which cannot be divided. Democritus thought the universe worked in a mechanical matter, driven by vibrations or the impacts of atoms making and breaking down matter. Though these atoms could not be directly observed, the atomists believed their existence was inferred through their effects in the natural world; for example, a wet piece of cloth became dry in the sunshine because the water atoms left the cloth, though individually they were invisible.

A century after the atomists, Aristotle (384–322 BC) incorporated the work of Empedocles into his own philosophy. Aristotle's formation of the rough equivalent of a polytechnic university, called the Lyceum, in Athens; his influence as tutor to Alexander the Great; and his vast array of philosophical writings made his ideas extremely important in the ancient and medieval world. While rejecting the work of the atomists and their idea of empty space (a vacuum), Aristotle added his own qualities of hot, dry, cold, and wet to Empedocles's elements of earth (cold and dry), air (hot and wet), water (cold and wet), and fire (hot and dry). Aristotle also promoted the idea, previously proposed by Chinese alchemists, that metals incubated in the wombs of the earth.

Metallurgy and copper smelting were also known in ancient Greece from the Bronze Age, as were the use of substances in dyeing, painting, pottery, and the production of perfume and cosmetics. By the fourth century AD, in the Hellenistic period, knowledge of these techniques had spread to Alexandria in Egypt, the capital city of Alexander the Great's empire. The Alexandrian alchemist Zosimus (c. fifth century BC) was using techniques of distillation, the vaporization of solids by heat (sublimation), as well as filtration; stills and condensers were also part of his laboratory equipment. This basic chemical knowledge, combined with the idea that metals could grow, meant that alchemists thought that they could replicate the process of metal growth. They also thought they could accelerate and alter the growth process. The goal was to reduce metals to their prime matter and then impose upon them the qualities of gold. As alchemy took shape, the power of imposing qualities was believed to reside in what became known as the philosophers' stone.

Arabs and Alchemy

After the Islamic Arabs conquered Alexandria in the seventh century, the secrets of alchemy were transferred to Baghdad and Damascus. The eight century Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (721–815) believed the secret of the stone and the creation of gold lay in the Aristotelian four elements. Jabir was said by later medieval philosophers to have been a court physician practicing in what is now Iraq. It is also likely Jabir was a member of the Sufis, a type of Islamic mystic who sought salvation via contemplation or prayer; he seems to have made alchemy and the search for the philosophers' stone part of his quest.

Since elements could be changed based on shared qualities with other elements—e.g., fire could become air via heat or become earth by drying out—Jabir believed the transmutation of matter, and the subsequent creation of gold from base metals, was a possibility.

Reasoning that the transmutation of one metal into another was affected by the rearrangement of its qualities, Jabir believed the change was mediated by a substance or elixir (al-iksir in Arabic). This elixir, or the philosophers' stone, was thought to be a dry powder composed of a substance called carmot. In the search for the stone, Jabir did many experiments with substances that could dissolve and thus “transmute” matter. He most likely invented aqua regia, a mix of nitric acid (distilled from saltpeter) and hydrochloric acid (distilled from salt), which is one of the few substances that can dissolve and purify gold. It is also possible he discovered citric and tartaric acids (from dregs left from wine-making). His term alkali is still used in modern chemistry.

Jabir also introduced a theory that was influential in alchemy, postulating that metals were mixtures of mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, except for gold, which was made up of sulfur and mercury alone. He theorized that gold contained the most mercury and the least sulfur, so other metals could be made into gold if their mercury content could be increased.

Medieval and Early Modern Alchemy in the West

As the Arabs expanded their empire into Spain and Portugal in the eighth century, they took their knowledge of alchemy with them, introducing it to the Christian West. The first Crusade (1095–1099) also introduced Christians to Muslim science. Jabir's treatises on chemistry, the Kitab al-Kimya and Kitab al-Sab'een, were translated into Latin by the twelfth century with modifications and additions. The translation of the Kitab al-Kimya, which was published by Robert of Chester in 1144, became known as The Book of the Composition of Alchemy; it was the first alchemical work to appear in Latin in Europe. Robert of Chester also translated the Koran from Arabic to Latin. The medieval philosopher Gerard of Cremona (c.1114–1187) also translated some of Jabir's works.

A later fourteenth-century Spanish alchemist named himself Geber, the Latin version of Jabir, to take advantage of Jabir's reputation. Some older scholarly works translated Jabir's name into the Latinate as Geber, so many historians refer to the medieval writer as pseudo-Geber to avoid confusion. The medieval Geber, or pseudo-Geber, based his works, such as The Summit of Perfection, on Arabic alchemy but modified them to include a form of atomism called corpuscularianism. Corpuscularianism was much like atomism, but postulated that the minute particles of matter continued to be divisible, unlike the indivisible atoms. The fact that matter could be divisible infinitely meant that transmutation of base metals into gold was even more likely. The medieval Geber also included Christian allusions in his work, postulating that finding the philosophers' stone was like going on a Christian pilgrimage and finding it was the grail of salvation of the soul.

The mixture of mysticism, science, and often inherent greed intrinsic to alchemy gave it a checkered reputation in medieval and early modern Europe. Though alchemy was seen as a spiritual quest by select adepts (trained and skilled persons), knowledge of alchemy was often confined to the wealthy (it cost money to have a laboratory). Alchemy was also tied to the rights of a sovereign to whatever precious metals were found (or created) within his domain and the right to mint money. When King Henry IV of England (1367–1413) passed a law that forbade the making of gold or silver via alchemy in 1402, the idea was not necessarily to completely forbid the practice, but to insure the king's right to grant gold-making monopolies. In other words, gold-making was one of the king's privileges.

As the king controlled the mining and production of precious metals and coinage, a fraudulent alchemist would be committing a direct offence against the royal court. A special method of executions for fraudulent gold-makers was derived by Duke Friedrick of Württemberg (1557–1608). Alchemists were hung on gold-plated gallows under the inscription, “I had it in mind to fix mercury, but I find it was reversed, and I've been fixed.” Alchemists also could be imprisoned by ruling nobles if they were thought to be successful or potentially successful at making gold or silver, so they would not sell their secrets to a noble rival.

Paracelsus and the Use of Alchemy in Medicine

Amidst the economic and political concerns of alchemy, one individual by the name of Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541) wished to use alchemy to improve medicine. Calling himself Paracelsus (“beyond Celsus”) as a means to claim superiority over the Roman physician Celsus (c.25 BC–AD 50), he studied chemical reactions, tested the healing powers of chemicals inherent in plants, and believed that illness was caused by alchemical imbalances within the body. Paracelsus was the founder of iatrochemistry, or medical chemistry.

Paracelsus' emphasis on iatrochemistry was in direct opposition to the medical theory of his day, which was dominated by the doctrine of the bodily fluids or humors postulated by the ancient Roman physician Galen (129–c.216). Galen stated that good health relied on the balance of four humors or bodily fluids, defined as phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. The job of the humors was to nourish the body, as well as to provide the material for sperm and, in pregnancy, for the fetus.

Humoral balance was also influenced by one's complexion or temperament. There were four basic complexions, each caused by the dominance of one humor. The sanguinous personality resulted from the predominance of the blood and had a lively and cheerful temperament. Sanguine people also tended to have florid complexions from an excess of blood. The melancholy personality resulted from a surfeit of black bile, and melancholics were thought to be dark in skin and hair tone and prone to depression and worry. The phlegmatic person, dominated by the phlegm humor, was calm, slow, and prone to watery swellings in the body. Cholerics, with a surfeit of yellow bile, were energetic and quickly prone to anger.

If a person was too emotional, it was thought he had an “overactive” heart due to too much blood. Humoral balance could then be restored by therapeutic bloodletting via leeches or lancet. The doctor perforated the vein, and sometimes many shallow cuts were made. When the patient felt faint, and was considered to be calmer to the purgation of the excess humor, the bleeding was stopped. Bleeding was also done if another humor was too predominant, as the pure humor blood contained a smaller amount of the other humors. Humoral balance could also be achieved via diet or herbal remedies, using a treatment of opposites. For instance, if there was an overabundance of cold and moist phlegm, the physician would give the patient remedies associated with hot and dry yellow bile.

Paracelsus sought to overthrow Galenic theory and replace it with an alchemical model. He saw the growth of plants and animals, the ripening of fruit, the fermentation of wine and beer, and the digestion of food as essentially alchemical processes and was the first to use the word “chemistry” to describe them. Jabir had posited that mercury and sulfur were basic elemental principles; that metals were made of sulfur and mercury, with sulfur being considered a combustible substance; and that mercury was the predominant element in gold. Paracelsus added salt to this dyad of chemical elements, creating a tria prima, or three-principle, model of matter that could explain all transmutations. While Paracelsus had no desire to dispose of the Aristotelian schema of earth, air, water, and fire, he did feel that they were purely “spiritual in nature and only crude approximations of the objects by which we call these names.”

Paracelsus also attempted to classify chemicals according how they performed in chemical reactions, and he insisted on the purity of a chemical and an exact quantity when giving it as medicine, which was a new concept and standard for medicine. He also did the best contemporary nosology (medical description) of the venereal disease syphilis in his day and promoted curing the disease with mercury, which in limited doses can be effective. He also realized that silicosis, a lung disease of miners, was due to inhaling vapors in mines, not the result of mountain spirits seeking their revenge. Paracelsus also insisted upon empirical observation to create his chemical medicaments, stating “what a doctor needs is not eloquence or knowledge of language of books, but a profound knowledge of Nature and her works.”

Paracelsus' innovations did not mean that he was a modern doctor. He believed in astrological medicine and posited deep connections between the microcosm (little world) of the body and the macrocosm (larger universe) in health and disease. He thought that the shape of plants indicated their healing properties; for instance he wrote that an orchid shaped like a testicle or a mandrake root shaped like a small man could cure sexual dysfunction.

Robert Boyle, Chymistry and the Decline of Alchemy

Although Paracelsus used what we would now consider pseudo-scientific theories, it is best to understand him on his own terms. His ideas about chemistry reflected the state of chemical experimentation in the early modern period. Some historians have suggested that by the sixteenth century, any sort of chemistry should be referred to as chymistry to reflect its transitional status between what we would consider alchemy and chemistry. In other words, though early modern chymists (those who practiced from 1500–1700) attempted to transmute metals into gold, considered an alchemical practice, they also performed other experiments involving mass balance (determining which materials enter and leave a

system) or crystallographic analysis that would be considered more closely related to modern chemistry.

Robert Boyle (1627–1691), the seventeenth-century natural philosopher, would certainly be considered a chymist. A son of the extremely wealthy Earl of Cork, Boyle had the time and resources to build his own chymical laboratory and supply it with equipment. His subsequent work on vacuum pumps, the discovery of the relation of volume and pressure named Boyle's Law, the classification of alkalis and acids, and the use of pH indicators would be considered chemical research today, but the context of these discoveries was sometimes alchemical in origin.

Boyle is best known for subjecting Aristotle's theory of the elements, as well as Paracelsus' tria prima to analysis and thorough criticism. However, Boyle was not against Jabir's idea that sulfur and mercury could be separated from metals; he believed that the philosophers' stone existed; and thought he had succeeded in the alchemical transformation of gold to silver.

On the other hand, Boyle did not think that sulfur and mercury were truly elemental principles, as he was an advocate of corpuscularianism, and he had little patience for the secrecy of most alchemical practice. Boyle believed that all alchemical experiments should be done rigorously, with keen empiricism, and that their results should be shared with other chymical practitioners so the experiments could be repeated and their results confirmed. It is little surprise that Boyle himself was one of the key early members of England's Royal Society, founded in 1660, the oldest national scientific society in the world that had a regular journal, the PhilosophicalTransactions, recording the results of the experiments of its members.

Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist (1661) to criticize poor experimentation and systems of the elements such as Aristotle's and Paracelsus’, which he saw as based only on theory and not on empirical proof. In his work, he did a series of experiments by fire analysis, in which he subjected samples to intense heat and subsequent distillation to reveal their elemental principles. He found that none of the theoretical frameworks of the elements explained what he was seeing in the laboratory. For instance, gold remains gold no matter how much it is heated. It does not break down into earth, air, water, fire, salt, sulfur, or mercury. When blood was observed during fire analysis, it seemed to give five substances: phlegm, spirit (vapor), oil, salt, and earth. These inconsistent results fostered Boyle's assertion that the chymist should not adopt theories that claimed that universal elements are present in all bodies.

Boyle thought all matter was made up of corpuscles, which were themselves made up of atoms. The different combinations of atoms resulted in different material forms. Though it was difficult to apply his corpuscular theory to laboratory practice, and ultimately corpuscularianism fell by the wayside, Boyle contributed greatly to the transformation of alchemy into a chemistry we would recognize today. His emphasis on precise experimentation, his questioning of the elemental system of the alchemists, his discovery of chemical laws, and his insistence that the results of chemical research should be shared openly made chemical practice a necessary and respected part of scientific inquiry. The Age of Alchemy was on the decline.

Modern Cultural Connections

In 1980, Nobel Prize-winning American chemist Glenn Seaborg (1912–1999) transmuted microscopic amounts of bismuth into gold. The altered atoms lasted only seconds and required a significant input of energy, thus negating any potential economic benefit. However, modern chemistry and physics had at last achieved the ancient alchemists' goal.

While alchemy is no longer considered a science, it remains part of various cultural traditions. Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines still apply some ancient alchemical principles. Traditional alchemy is often a subject of contemporary fantasy fiction. The legend of the philosopher's stone is featured prominently in the popular Harry Potter book and movie series.

See Also Astronomy and Cosmology: Cosmology; Physics: Aristotelian Physics; Science Philosophy and Practice: Pseudoscience and Popular Misconceptions.



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Morris, Richard. Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2003.


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Anna Marie Eleanor Roos

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Chemistry: The Practice of Alchemy

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