Alchemy Without The Shame

John Noble Wilford has a long, interesting article in today’s New York Times on the rehabilitation of the alchemist. Once the icon of the bad old days before the scientific revolution, alchemy has been emerging in recent years as more of a proto-science. Indeed, a fair number of the heroes of the scientific revolution were dyed-in-the-wool alchemists. Robert Boyle, one of the founders of chemistry, wanted to reform alchemy, not destroy it. He chased after the philsopher’s stone for his whole life. Many of his papers were destroyed in the eighteenth century because they were loaded with discussions of alchemy–which by then had acquired its bad reputation. Boyle’s legacy had to be protected.

Wilford reported from a recent meeting of historians of chemistry in Philadelphia. From his report (as well as this one from the New York Sun and this one from Chemical and Engineering News), it seems as if the meeting neglected one of the most interesting sides of alchemy: its role in the history of bio-chemistry. Alchemists believed that the life was the greatest transmutation of all, and they believed that the philsopher’s stone would serve as the ultimate medicine. While a lot of alchemists dealt in Kevin-Trudeau-style hogwash, some did important work.

Jan Baptist van Helmont, a sixteenth-century Belgian alchemist, carried out a classic experiment on biological growth. He put a five pound willow sapling in a tube of 200 pounds of earth. For five years he gave the tree nothing but water, and then weighed both tree and earth. The tree had grown to 169 pounds, while the earth had lost a few ounces. “Hence one hundred and sixty-four pounds of wood, bark, and roots have come up from water alone,” he announced. Van Helmont believed that the willow was nothing more than transmuted water, given form by the willow’s inner soul.

I first came to appreciate the importance of alchemy in the rise of biochemistry while working on my book Soul Made Flesh, on the history of neurology. Thomas Willis, the first neurologist, started out as an alchemist, deeply influenced by Van Helmont. He came into contact with Robert Boyle through their shared interest in alchemy. And his first important work was a book that used alchemy to reinterpret physiology. Instead of the four humours, Willis saw body being made up of corpuscles of different sorts, borrowing concepts of Van Helmont and other alchemists. These corpuscles interacted with one another to produce changes, just as ferments made bread rise and grape juice turn to wine.

Willis later did groundbreaking work on the anatomy and function of the brain, which until his time had generally been considered a pretty useless organ. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic, the distilling container of alchemy, in which some of the corpuscles of the blood were distilled into the animal spirits, which then flowed through the nerves. While some of Willis’s language and concepts are now hopelessly old-fashioned, he set the study of the brain–and thus the soul–on a new foundation.

The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards. I wonder how twenty-ninth cenutry historians will look back at our own revolutions today. Who will be cast aside as the new alchemists?