Alchemy Without The Shame

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

AlchemistJohn 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.

More here.