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Alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry and modern science, is a combination of mysticism and experimental procedures. Alchemy's primary goals are to discover the "Philosopher's Stone", or the means to create gold (transmutation), and the Elixir of Life that will grant immortality. For centuries, alchemists pursued these idealistic dreams, but to little avail. In the process however, alchemists developed theories about matter, metals, minerals, and even light. Their documentation of laboratory procedures and chemical discoveries created the basis of contemporary science, in particular chemistry. Scientists, as well as practitioners of the occult and dark magic, fall under the ancient title of "alchemists." Only in more recent history have these two groups been differentiated.

Ancient History

The art of alchemy is often seen as a black and occult practice, but in actuality, it is the foundation of modern chemistry. The origin of the word alchemy is frequently disputed. "Khumos", a Greek root meaning "fluid," has been proposed as a possibility while others claim that "Khemia," the Greek word for Egypt, is the source of the word alchemy; some argue that Arabs changed this word to "al-Khemia" in reference to the "Black Land" or Egypt. [1] Other viable origins include the Arabic word "al-kīmiya" which means "to weld, cast, or pour together", the Persian word for gold-- "Kimia", and the ancient Egyptian word for black-- "kmt". [2] Beyond the word, alchemy originated in China as early as 400 B.C., followed by similar practices in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, and India. [3] Some records seem to indicate however, that when the Macedonian Greeks conquered Egypt in the fourth century, they found alchemical records. The Emerald Tablet, attributed to a somewhat mythical Egyptian character known as Hermes-Thoth, provided the beginnings of alchemy. Unfortunately, many of these ancient Egyptian writings were probably destroyed by Emperor Diocletian in 292 A.D. during a revolt. [4] Many invaluable and significant documents were also lost in the burning of the library at Alexandria in 391 A.D. [5]

A table of alchemy symbols for various compounds and elements.

In China, alchemists sought the Grand Elixir of Immortality through traditional Taoist therapies for the mind and body, particularly acupuncture and moxibustion ("a therapy that uses mugwort herb to stimulate the circulation of blood through warm regions of the body and key acupuncture points"). [6] The Chinese Taoist monks searched for both the inner and outer elixir, the inner with plants and minerals to achieve physical immortality, and the outer with exercises to control the body's "life force". [7] The Chinese believed that the elixir would be a liquid, drinkable gold, so they largely ignored the transmutation of base metals into gold, unlike the Western world; in Europe transmutation was the chief pursuit of alchemists. [8] The Greek and Egyptian philosophies consolidated around the believed elements of earth, water, air, and fire. During the Christian era of the Roman Empire however, these Hermetic teachings appeared to challenge the established Christian doctrine of Augustine. The conflict between the two philosophies resulted in Islamic support of alchemy rather than the leaders of medieval Europe. [9] The European alchemists believed that gold was the purest substance and all other metals were inferior, leading to a desire to transform these metals into gold via an unknown substance called the Philosopher's Stone. The Stone was also thought to be the source of immortality. [10] Some alchemists pursued a special form of fire called "philosophic fire" that was believed to lead to the discovery of the legendary Philosopher's Stone. In Egypt, alchemy soon incorporated portions of astrology, using symbols like the sun for gold and the moon for silver.[11]

An exhibit depicting an alchemist's laboratory

Arabs first introduced alchemy in Spain in the eighth century, where it soon spread to encompass medieval Europe. [12] Some historians argue that genuine alchemical practices and experimentation in Europe began much later however, in the thirteenth century. Christian alchemists developed philosophies such that, as separate parts can be chemically purified and reunited, so God and man could be united once again through alchemical means. This erroneous belief was targeted by an edict of Pope John XXII that banned all clergy from practicing alchemy. For the next few centuries, alchemy became less of a philosophy of experimentation and discovery and more of a dark and occult magic. [13] Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alchemy in Europe grew under the patronage of wealthy aristocrats and rulers. [14] About this time alchemy split into two groups: one continued to pursue the art of transmutation, immortality, and the metaphysical aspects of ancient alchemy; the other devoted itself to experimentation and the discovery of elements and scientific principles, leading to modern day chemistry. [15]

Famous Alchemists


Zosimus was one of the earliest alchemists on record, living around 250 A.D. Although he was Greek, Zosimus lived and worked in Panopolis, Egypt. He compiled an encyclopedia of twenty-eight volumes containing the remains of Greek and Egyptian writings on alchemy. These writings give valuable insight into the mummification process, mathematical formulas, and early descriptions of the alleged four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Zosimus was an ardent believer of these four elements, and how they compose the known universe; this belief has been since been disproven. Zosimus is also credited with the discovery of arsenic and lead acetate. [16] The Divine Art of Making Gold and Silver, a work attributed to Zosimus, was written after much of the alchemical information was burned by Diocletian in 296 A.D. [17]


Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan, an Arabian alchemists known as "Geber" by the Europeans, lived around 721-815 A.D. in modern-day Iraq. Geber believed in the mystical "Philosopher's Stone", or "Elixir of Life", that could create gold out of base metals and become a liquid form that grants eternal life. Geber thought that all metals were basically composed of, and could therefore be reduced to, mercury and sulfur. Mixing these two elements in proper ratios with the "Philosopher's Stone" was supposed to form gold. Among his scientific achievements, Geber developed a way to process white lead and other methods of metal refinement, discovered ammonium chloride, mercury, salt, and sulfur, experimented with weak acids like nitric acid and vinegar. [18] He also distilled acetic acid from vinegar. [19] Geber is believed to have composed over five hundred papers on his work, but only three remain: The Sum of the Perfect Magistery, The Investigation of Perfection, and Testament. His journals are also the first to mention red oxide of mercury, silver nitrate, and acidic sublimate. [20] Ironically, one of Geber's legacies is the word "gibberish", which came from his cryptic writing style. [21]

Arnold of Villanova

Arnold was born to converted Jewish parents around 1235 in Valencia, Spain. Being bilingual in Arabic and Greek, Arnold presented the Arab alchemists' writings to Europe. He was a successful doctor, even treating Pope Boniface VIII, but his views and opinions sometimes brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. [22] Arnold studied alchemy and theology along with medicine. During the Inquisition, many accused him of practicing magic and conversing with the devil. Fortunately, Arnold survived this persecution (unlike some of his contemporaries), but his books were burned for containing heresy against the Church. [23] Some believe that he was saved from execution because of his medicinal skill. Arnold studied Geber's writings and commented on the transmutation of metals. He discovered carbon dioxide and was the first to create pure alcohol. He is thought to have died in 1311 or 1312. [24]


Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was a Swiss alchemist who took the name Paracelsus--'better than Celsus' (Celsus had been a famous Roman scholar of medicine). Paracelsus pursued alchemy as a means to treat disease rather than transmute metals into gold. [25] He was born in May 1493, and began his academic studies at the collegiate level in 1510. Paracelsus created the narcotic opium, which he called laudanum, for his patients. He pursued the use of minerals and elements such as zinc to treat sickness. He was devoted to finding the "Philosopher's Stone," and used his knowledge of alchemy to treat his patients. Paracelsus linked mining to respiratory disease, connected head injuries with retardation and paralysis, diagnosed congenital syphilis, and disproved that mental illness indicated demon possession. Paracelsus's efforts to combine alchemical knowledge and medical practice significantly influenced the formation of chemistry and modern medicine. [26]

Isaac Newton

Although better known for being a scientist and mathematician who established much of the mechanics of modern science, Isaac Newton was an avid alchemist. Living from 1642-1727, Newton is said to have been "the last of the magicians" rather than the "first of the age of reason." Some even speculate that Newton achieved the successful transmutation of metals such as lead into gold. [27] After his death, the Royal Society in England refused to publish some of his writings pertaining to alchemy. Scholars reassessed Newton's papers in the mid-twentieth century, and many now support Newton’s extensive practice in alchemy. Newton utilized his alchemical knowledge when developing his theories about gravity and light. He spent hours locked in his laboratory and kept most of his findings and work a secret, as was typical of most brilliant alchemists. Light particularly fascinated Newton because alchemy teachings indicated that light personified God's Word. Newton's studies and experiments in alchemy were from a spiritual perspective of exploring and interpreting God's will through the physical universe. [28]

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was born on January 25, 1627, into a large and wealthy Irish family of nobility. [29] He challenged the ancient principles of alchemy, especially the idea that matter consisted of the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air. Through his in-depth studies of matter, Boyle wrote The Sceptical Chymist in 1661, presenting the concept of elements as simple substances capable of forming, and being extracted from, compounds. [30] His speculations led to his theories about the atom and molecules. He experimented with the transmutation of metals and supported the appeal of Henry IV's edict against reproducing gold and silver. Boyle was also a devoted Christian who spent large amounts of money and time promoting the spread of the Gospel. He died on December 30, 1691. Boyle's work and theories acted as a transition between ancient alchemy and modern chemistry. [31]

Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon was born in England in 1214. He became a Franciscan friar around 1257 and his work in astronomy, mathematics, science, and geography continued to develop. As an alchemist, he believed in the "Philosopher's Stone" and the "Elixir of Life". These beliefs were denounced as heresy by the Church and Bacon was banned from writing for about almost ten years. Pope Clemency IV lifted the ban and Bacon wrote his famous three-volume work: Opus Majus, Opus Minus, and Opus Terilium. Opus Majus described his scientific, mathematic, and religious views. Bacon was persecuted and ostracized for his seemingly heretical beliefs and was imprisoned from 1277-1291. After his death in 1292, tales and legends portrayed him as a powerful sorcerer with occultic powers, but much of this is most likely myth. [32] Bacon predicted the development of boats without oars, flying machines with wings like birds, and vehicles that could travel at "impossible" speeds without animals. His contributions to science include corrections to the Julian calendar, optical studies (convex glasses, telescope, spectacles, etc.), and air's part in combustion. [33]

Fraudulent Alchemists

A symbolic illustration of an alchemist.

With the potential for wealth in the creation of gold, alchemy attracted many charlatans and frauds. It's relatively easy to identify alchemic swindlers from genuine alchemists by their eagerness to share their finds and nomadic lifestyles. True alchemists encoded their secrets with mysterious symbols and concealed their discoveries; they also spent months, years, or even a lifetime in their laboratories performing lengthy experiments. Fake alchemists readily expounded their knowledge of the "Philosopher's Stone" or a rapid method of producing gold. These charlatans commended themselves to a wealthy gentleman, like a prince or priest, using their employer's avarice to satisfy their own. Typically, the "alchemist" would perform a demonstration that rigged beforehand. Common practices included placing a piece of silver or gold inside of a hollow stirring rod or inside of a piece of charcoal concealed with black wax. The fraud would mix mercury and some magical ingredient in a crucible and gradually heat up the mixture. At a high temperature the mercury evaporated and the wax melted away, leaving the placed bit of silver or gold inside the crucible. After demonstrations like these, many fraudulent alchemists received payment for their "recipe" or sold large amounts of components necessary to "create" the precious metal. As soon as they were paid, the swindlers conveniently disappeared. [34] Another common deception was to take a nail that was half iron and half gold and paint over the gold side with black paint. The "alchemist" would then dip the nail into a solution that removed the paint. Any tests on the nail would prove that the gold was genuine.

An outrageous scheme was concocted by Daniel von Siebenburgen, a false alchemist for Duke Cosimo I of Florence, Italy. Daniel created a mysterious substance, "Usufur powder", that he then distributed to the apothecaries throughout the region. In 1555, Daniel told the Duke that he could create gold with a few simple chemicals, including his "Usufur powder." Several tests that "produced" genuine gold convinced the Duke to trust Daniel. He paid him twenty thousand ducats to confide the process to no other individual but himself. Within a short period of time, Daniel went off to France for an "urgent consultation" and never returned to Florence. [35] Common punishment for fake alchemists was imprisonment or even death by hanging. One Italian swindler called Cajetani was hung on a gallows of gold as an example because he had cheated so many people out of their money. [36]

In his historical address delivered at the "Sorbonne Scientific Soirée" on April 7, 1864, Louis Pasteur criticised the celebrated alchemical physician Van Helmont living in the seventeenth century for his views on the subject of spontaneous generation. [37] Van Helmont declared that When water from the purest spring is placed in a flask steeped in leavening fumes, it putrefies, engendering maggots. The fumes which rise from the bottom of a swamp produce frogs, ants, leeches, and vegetation... Carve an indentation in a brick, fill it with crushed basil, and cover the brick with another, so that the indentation is completely sealed. Expose the two bricks to sunlight, and you will find that within a few days, fumes from the basil, acting as a leavening agent, will have transformed the vegetable matter into veritable scorpions.He also affirmed having conducted the experiment described as: If a soiled shirt is placed in the opening of a vessel containing grains of wheat, the reaction of the leaven in the shirt with fumes from the wheat will, after approximately twenty-one days, transform the wheat into mice and aded that the resulting mice are adults, male and female, and that they may continue to reproduce their species by copulation. Pasteur ironically commented that "though it is easy enough to conduct experiments, it is far from easy to conduct irreproachable ones" and finally concluded that experiments of the sort adduced, in the seventeenth century, in favor of the doctrine of spontaneous generation, are absurd even if they would be defended by famous names like Epicurus, Aristotle, or Van Helmont.

Developing Chemistry

In the seventeenth century the practice of "chymistry" included both alchemy and chemistry. Alchemy is considered by many to be an occult religion and a pursuit of some metaphysical, transmutation process. Although this belief holds some credibility, medieval alchemists performed and developed experiments. These chemical experiments helped created methods and tests to identify substances. Alchemists seeking religious enlightenment soon became distanced from the innovative scientists building the foundations of modern chemistry. The work and study of two of chemistry's founding fathers in particular, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, shifted medieval alchemy into modern chemistry. They rejected some of the traditional alchemical beliefs, like the four elements, and proposed new ideas like the atom. [38] Even in more recent years, discoveries have been made that further split the ancient world of alchemy and the modern science of chemistry. The old belief that elements could be transmuted via chemical processes from one substance to another was entirely disproved in the 1930s. It was determined that elements are made up of only one kind of atom and cannot be broken down further with chemical methods. Any changes in an element had to occur within the nucleus, leading to the new science of nuclear physics. Nuclear transformations can now create gold, but only with much expense and danger. Alchemists may have been chasing an impossible dream in transmutation, yet their experiments, methods, and discoveries resulted in incalculable feats in contemporary chemistry. [39]

Modern Contributions


Distillation appartus in the 1500s.

Despite notable blunders, mystic beliefs, and debunked charlatans, alchemists were able to develop some notable contributions toward modern science. In chemistry, alchemists are credited with inventing test tubes and sealed crucibles. Alchemists' experiments and analysis of metals and their components advanced the field of metallurgy (The science that deals with procedures used in extracting metals from their ores, purifying and alloying metals, and creating useful objects from metals). [40] [41] In Europe alchemy discovered elements like metallic arsenic, zinc, and phosphorus. Johann Bottger, a German alchemist, accidentally created a substance that could be used to make porcelain; this broke a Chinese monopoly on the profitable porcelain trade. [42] Alchemists also formed various laboratory techniques like distillation, extraction, filtration, evaporation, crystallization, and coagulation. Of other importance in the lab, alchemists conceived the concept of using minerals in experiments and procedures rather than just plant or animal matter. Using minerals for laboratory research proved to be a milestone in chemistry because of their prolonged shelf life, vast quantities and availability, and easy transportation. The discovery and initial use of some alcohols and acids (such as nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid) are also attributed to alchemy. [43]


Potential tools of an alchemist in performing experiments.

In the late fifteenth century alchemists began applying their knowledge to the development of new medical treatments. The growing variety of treatments allowed patients more opportunities to participate in the treatment their own health issues. Paracelsus was the leading alchemist in creating medical techniques. He produced homemade (synthetic) trial medicines to prescribe to patients; his observations of the effects of his medicine further advanced the development of pharmaceutics. Other medical contributions of alchemists include their pursuit of vaccines for polio, chickenpox, and the flu. Alchemical knowledge has also contributed to the pursuit of effective treatments for cancer and HIV. [44]

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