The History of European Alchemy

Table of Contents


The magical notion of alchemy is a modern construction. In accordance to this notion, a serious journal of science a completely wrong place for alchemy. But history believes otherwise. It is believed that the history of sciences is strongly interlinked with the scientific disciplines and the concept of “world-view”. This refers to the image of the world along with a phase of cultural development.

The birth of this concept was found through the merger of the philosophies of Aristotle with Christian theology and for centuries predominantly found in Europe of the middle Ages and Renaissance. The birth of the “scientific revolution” in natural philosophies in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was identified to be a cultural event associated with great names like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton (Hankins 1985, 1).

This revolution produced the “new philosophy” which was characterized by mechanical rational and empirical philosophy was born out of the magical element of the medieval world-view.

History of alchemy has been widely researched and there are different schools of thoughts who present diverse view on the subject and its practices. The roots of the modern sciences are embedded in alchemy which was practiced in early medieval Europe.

The history of alchemy is colored by views of rejection of obscurity that arose out of Enlightenment and the Romantic disorientation of Newtonian science that led to a nascent development of occult (Principe and Newman 2001, 385).

The mention of alchemy has been found in Europe since A.D 800 to the middle of seventeenth century and its practitioners ranged from kings, clergymen, popes, parish clerks, smiths, dyers, and tinkers (Holmyard 1990, 15).

There are references of alchemy in literary works of Shakespeare, Chaucer (in Canterbury Tales), and Ben Jonson (in the Alchemist). The European Alchemy was bounded by the Aristotelian matter theory. As we have seen, the alchemy that was practiced till the seventeenth century slowly evaporated with the ascent of the science which started growing in the seventeenth century itself.

This paper argues that the study of the modern sciences was born out of the medieval alchemy. The main aim of this paper is to understand if the erstwhile alchemy as practiced in the medieval Europe have birth to sciences or it was through the enlightenment of the early seventeenth century? Are these two different or same? Did alchemy give birth to physics, chemistry, botany, astrology, psychology, medicine, and so on and so forth?

In this paper, we first trace the history of alchemy in brief and its contribution to the development of modern day science. Then we study the famous men of history who devoted their time in studying and practicing alchemy. Given this background of alchemy in Europe, we will trace the difference between European alchemy and Chinese Taoism and its contribution to sciences. Then we will draw a conclusion with our findings.

What is Alchemy?

Alchemy is both a philosophy and an experimental science (Redgrove 2007, 1). It has a twofold nature, one is outward or exoteric and the other is hidden or esoteric (Holmyard 1990, 15). The exoteric branch of alchemy deals with the preparation of substance (i.e. the philosopher’s stone) which is expected to have the power to transform base metals such as lead, tin, copper, iron, and mercury into metals which valuable such as gold and silver.

This stone is also called Elixir and is said to have the power to bestow eternity. But this view gradually transformed into transformation of esoteric view of alchemy wherein the mystical alchemy evolved. From mundane transformation of metals the field digressed to transformation of sinful man into a perfect human through prayers and subjugation to the will of God. This was also known as the transcendental theory of alchemy (Redgrove 2007, 2).

The second theory has been widely refuted by many researchers who believe that the lives of alchemists were occupied with chemical operations on the physical plane (Redgrove 2007, 3).

But the transcendental nature of alchemy cannot be completely erased from the study of alchemy as they are intertwined together (Holmyard 1990, 19). Even the writings of alchemists find accounts of chemical processes and discoveries which do not pertain, in any way, to transcendental interpretations. In our study, we thus confine ourselves to the study of the exoteric nature of alchemy.

The word alchemy is derived from Arabic word, alkimia. This is segregated into two parts, al, which is a definitive article, and the origin of kimia is from kmt or chem, the ancient name of Egypt. It is also argued that the origin of kimia is from the Greek word chyma, meaning to fuse or cast a metal. Thus, the word itself points at the exoteric nature of the study.

Thus to truly determine the meaning of alchemy it must be understood that modern day science and religion are completely different fields, but as it was in the medieval ages, the two could not be divided from each other, when science and religion were closely linked together (Redgrove 2007, 8).

Hence, alchemy may be defined as “the attempt to demonstrate experimentally on the material plane the validity of a certain philosophical view of the Cosmos; now this “philosophical view of the Cosmos” was Mysticism” (Redgrove 2007, 8). This idea has been clearly demonstrated through the basic axiom of alchemy which states that whatever is above is that which is below and whatever is blow can be found above.

Redgrove has suggested that science (especially chemistry) as devised by Dalton of chemical elements had completely deviated from the mystical view of metals but with the evolution of science today with stress on “ether of space”, the uncanny similarity between science and alchemy has been identified (Redgrove 2007, 16).

Further alchemy was the source of many recipes and apparatus used in chemistry which was deliberately made complicated so as to keep the search for the philosopher’s stone a secret. But according to Hankins, alchemy disappeared with the Enlightenment which instead gave birth to chemistry, pharmacy, astrology and other physical sciences (Hankins 1985, 81-84).

History of Alchemy

Before undertaking a study of alchemy, it is important to free our minds with a few legends of alchemy that thrive in our minds. Alchemy was not only an early for of chemistry or an occult science victimized by church or state authorities.

Even the story of alchemy being a secret wisdom inherited by the Pharos of Egypt from Hermes Trismegistes – arose from the union of Thot, Egyptian God also considered by some as an Egyptian sage who lived in the 13th century BC, and the Greek Hermes (Tramer, et al. 2007, 5).

These are nothing but legends that predominate our modern understanding of alchemy. Alchemy actually is a class of “sciences” which found its origin in the beginning of the Hellenic age, and is actually a melting pot of Greek, oriental and Egyptian understanding of philosophy and religion. There is a set of fifteen manuscripts which ensemble manuscripts pertaining to alchemical, magic, and religious

Gnostic doctrines coming from Hermes and were also known as corpus hermeticum (Jonas 1958). Another source for alchemy is the famous tabula smaragdina (emerald tablet), written between 200 and 300 AD, which is supposed to be a summary of alchemic knowledge.

Alchemy lost its tradition in Europe, even in Byzantium, after the fall of the Latin Empire. But it was rediscovered in the Islamic, Arabian-Persian world, and was developed in close proximity of metallurgy and medicine. Alchemy arrived back in Europe in the 10 – 12th century. Sicily being an appendage of the Islam from 902 to 1091 was conquered by the Normans and was made a seat of Arabic learning.

But it was Spain that the greatest activity of Islamic learning and alchemy prevailed. Many Arabic books were translated. One of the earliest translators was Robert of Chester translated Arabic books on Alchemy into Latin, the ‘Book of Composition of Alchemy’ in 1144 (Holmyard 1990, 106). In his book, we first find the mention of Khalid bin Yazid and Moreinus who were one of the most prominent figures of Islamic alchemy.

Robert’s main contribution to the study of European sciences was the translation of Arabic books of alchemy and algebra. This has been confirmed by the presence of large number of Arabic words, such as elixir, alembic, or athanor, being used as alchemical jargon and the presence of distorted names of Islamic scholars in European mediaeval manuscripts such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), ibn Sina (Avicenna), and al-Tohgrai (Artephius) (Tramer, et al. 2007, 6).

Eminent personalities of 12 and 13th century studied alchemy. A few prominent names include Albertus Magnus – Albert von Bollstadt (1193-1280) and Arnaldus de Villanova (1235-1313). Well know work in alchemical treatise, Aurora Surgens, was written by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1275).

Alchemy became an extremely popular form during the Renaissance and Baroque years (1350-1650). It was accepted and practiced under royal patronage. Most famous of the royalties who patron alchemy was the Emperor Rodolph II (1576-1612) in Prague, and Philip II of Spain (1556-1598). It was also endorsed by the Vatican.

Alchemy acted as a catalyst to the intellectual era of the Renaissance Europe which was characterized high degree of curiosity, quest for adventure, enterprising, and devoid of criticism of magic. Thus, Renaissance acted complementarily with alchemy with both believing in Nature as a Magia naturalis, a metaphysical view of Nature (Koyre 2007).

But the decline of alchemy after the 17th century in Europe was due to two basic reasons: the conflict of the ideologies of alchemy with rational and critical philosophy on Enlightenment and the beckoning of modern chemistry. Alchemy lost its popularity when chemistry found a place in the sciences.

Early European Alchemy

Chemical texts were introduced in the Western European countries in the 12th century along with other treasures from Greek science, philosophy, and medicine by various translators especially from Arabic. We have already discussed of Robert of Chester as the first known European translator of books on alchemy into Latin.

They have described chemistry as a “secret art” which was so critically codified that the real meaning was very difficult to be understood from the original text (Debus 2004, 16). There were numerous references of alchemy allegory in the medieval literature such as in Chaucer’s 14th century “Cannon Yeoman’s tale” remains the best illustration of gold-making.

The medieval form of alchemy was based much on the doctrines of Aristotle. The four elements of earth, water, air, and fire were the cornerstones of Aristotelian physics as well as the basis of Galenic medical theory which were depicted in the form of four humors such as blood, phlegm, yellow, and black bile (Debus 2004, 17).

The qualities associated with these elements were believed to be interchangeable. Islam scholars added to this by introducing metals to these elements in the 8th century.

They have taught that these were composed of philosopher’s (hypothetical) mercury and sulfur, which they believed if mixed in the right proportion will produce gold. Alchemy carries both the Aristotelian and the Islamic element theory along with an aura of mysticism.

The alchemists stressed on experimentation and observational evidence. Paracelsus a noted scientist of the medieval era stressed on learning from nature rather than books, which is also evident in early literature of alchemy. The 14th century alchemist Bonus of Ferrara as quoted in Debus, states:

If you wish to know that pepper is hot and that vinegar is cooling, that colocynth and absinthe are bitter, that honey is sweet, and that aconite is poison; that magnet attracts steel, that arsenic whitens brass, and that tutia turns it of an orange color, you will, in every one of these cases, have to verify the assertion by experience. It is the same in Geometry, Astrology, Music, Perspective, and other sciences with a practical aim and scope. A like rule applies with double force in alchemy, which undertakes to transmute the base metals into gold and silver…The truth and justice of this claim, like all other propositions of a practical nature, has to be demonstrated by a practical experiment, and in no other way can it satisfactorily be shown.” (Debus 2004, 18)

This interest of alchemists in observation was seen in their stress on laboratory procedures. For instance, Geber (Latin for Jabir ibn Hayyan) produced an extraordinary work describing these equipment and chemical processes. Though he made little mention of medicine, the search for chemicals with pharmaceutical value continued.

In the West, Roger Bacon noted in 1267 that though there was a wide range of experimentation in finding the medicinal value of chemicals, very few found the means to prolongation of life. The medical value of chemistry was also stressed on by Arnold of Villanova (1935-1311) and 14th century author John of Rupescissa. Till this time, alchemy was not considered to be a rival of physicians or philosophers.

The translation of Corpus hemeticum in 1463 by Ficino pointed to alchemy as a fundamental science of understanding of nature. John Dee applied geometry to draw “hieroglyphic monad” which closely resembles the sign of mercury in alchemy.

Dee’s emphasis was on a spiritual form of mathematics favored by the Renaissance mathematicians who were the followers of Pythagoras who too sought the key to Creation in mystical numerical analysis. These proofs were again based on “mathematical proofs, chemical laboratory techniques, and practical medical applications” (Debus 2004, 19)

Thus, we see that alchemy had a close connection with modern day science. The procedure, equipment and ingredients of material alchemy is ingrained in the use of metals and matters which essentially show the chemical nature of the subject and some a few of the by-products of alchemical experiments comprised of important findings.

So a questions definitively arise is that was alchemy was in totality the predecessor of different phases of development of chemical science. Thus, we may say that there was a perfect harmony between material alchemy and the world-view arising from Aristotle’s physics and remained till the scientific revolution of 16-17th centuries.

So in a way by mixing the four Aristotelian elements in different proportions, the process of transmutation of base metals was assumedly a realistic project. Thus, we must note that alchemy and modern day science complemented each other as scientific disciplines and rational theorizing.

Alchemy started declining in Europe from the wake of the 18th century. The reason was the increasing conflict with rationalism, empirical philosophy, and Enlightenment. The mystical nature of the philosophies which tried to establish relation between all parts of the world found no place in modern, mechanical view of material world which found place through works of Descartes and Gassendi (Tramer, et al. 2007). According to Jung:

Its method of explanation, obscurum per obscurius, ignotum par ignotius… was incompatible with the spirit of enlightenment… but this con°ict… only gave le coup de grace to alchemy. Its inner decay began at least a century earlier… when many alchemists deserted their alembics and melting pots and devoted themselves entirely to the (Hermetic) philosophy… [which] lost the empirical ground under its feet and aspired to bombastic allegories and insane speculations…” (Jung 1952, 227)

The essential bond between material elements and the spiritual aspects of alchemy which encompassed the traditional view of world-view was broken. After the establishment of this disconnect, there arose the modern day chemistry. This did not mark any invention or revolution but a more simplistic interpretation of the medieval knowledge.

It is interesting to trace the development of the first true chemical theory. Sulfur (one of three basic metals of alchemy) was used by Johann Becher (1635-1682) as “inflammable earth” and Georg Stahl (1660-1734) came up with the idea of “phlogiston” – this is a component of every inflammable particle of the body lost when the body is burned.

During the same period, Robert Boyle wrote Skeptical Chymist (1661) which contained the first documented definitions of the chemical compound in place of mechanical mixtures.

But all these works of modern and nascent chemistry had its roots in alchemy. Robert Boyle, who is considered to be one of the fathers of modern chemistry, was an alchemist. Isaac Newton was keenly interested in alchemy and executed alchemic experiments before explaining the essence of Newtonian new physics (Dobbs 1991, 1).

Till the 18th century, the pioneers of “pneumatical chemistry” termed gases not as chemical compounds or elements but as modifications of the basic element air. Gases have been called by the medieval scientists as “air of fire” or “deflogisticated air” (oxygen), “nitrous air” (nitric oxide) or “inflammable air” (hydrogen) (Tramer, et al. 2007, 15).

With the growth of chemistry as a true science, the popularity of alchemy dissipated. Modern chemistry as a science was based on deducing general laws from quantitative measurements.

Unable to survive the advent of the modern Enlightenment and mechanistic view of world, alchemy disappeared from the modern sciences. Its presence remained in the esoteric segment of the practitioners such as the Rosicrucian movement and in the spiritualist inclinations of freemasonry till its reinvention as the post-modern anti-scientific movement of the 20th century.

Famous Alchemists of Europe

Past 12th century Europe had turned into a more advanced seat for learning and experimentation. Universities were starting to take shape and there was an appetite for learning and the quest for the new. This material was in the hand of Jews and Arabs. Europe had to derive from the knowledge of the Islamic philosophies and sciences, and that is why most of the early books on mathematics (especially algebra) and alchemy.

The key books for alchemy were Compounds’ for Coloring, the key to Painting, and Book of Fires which could be traced back to the Byzantine tradition derived from the concoctions of the papyri of Leyden and Stockholm (Taylor 1992, 96).

European men then started translation of a variety of Islamic books and the first known translator was Robert of Chester in 1144. By 1200, almost half-dozen texts were translated into Latin which include books like Book on Alums by al-Razi and the Emerald Table.

Many intellectuals doubted the legitimacy of alchemy. St. Albert (Albertus Magnus), Roger Bacon, and St. Thomas Aquinas discuss the question if alchemy was a true science or fraud.

Albertus’s excellent work on minerals was written through his rigorous visits to the mining districts to see the process himself. He even tested a few processes which the previous alchemists used to turn base metal to gold.

All he found was that after a few treatments the metals turned into ashes. A similar account was presented by al-Razi and Avincenna. The argument that was presented by Abertus was that if nature and sun could transform sulfur and mercury to metals, so these elements could transform into gold in a vessel using similar conditions.

Roger Bacon was one of the most illustrious alchemists of the medieval ages (c. 1250) was a dedicated experimenter in laboratory. In his Opus Tertium he demonstrated the difference between speculative alchemy which deals with the properties of bodies and their generation and changes, almost similar to modern chemistry, from the “operative or practical” nature of alchemy (Taylor 1992, 97).

His writings further shows that bacon believed most of the people who practice alchemy do so without proper knowledge of distillation, sublimation, calcinations, separation, etc. but all Bacon did was record a few his recipes and mentions of a science which has much utility.

St. Thomas Aquinas was considered one of the greatest minds of the medieval times who mention alchemy almost accidentally. The fundamental source of his interest and contribution to alchemy come from his translation of Arabic works. In 1250 AD, St. Thomas wrote (as quoted in Taylor):

The chief function of the alchemist is to transmulate metals, that is to say, the imperfect ones, in a true manner and not fraudulently.” (Taylor 1992, 99)

St. Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorological (Lectio IX al finem) shows that he accepts Aristotle’s argument that there are generations of metals inside the earth in dry vapor form, but he adds to this view that this mixture is formed through a celestial virtue, which is principally heat.

Thus, what he means to say is that metals are water in vapor form which becomes water if not cast into metal. He further states that metals can be calcinated into earth by fire but the purity of gold prevents it from being altered by even fire.

While mentioning the famous alchemists of Europe it is inevitable to mention Paracelsus (1493-1541) studied alchemy and medicine under his father. He was the first to recognize the physical universe with a motive other than alchemistic. It was he who identified that the object of alchemy (or chemistry) was not to prepare gold but to make medicine.

This synthesis was highly important to both the disciplines. Paracelsus’s main theory was that the analogy between man the microcosm and world which is macrocosm. He regarded all actions that go on in human body to be chemical in nature, and the illness that is caused in human body was due to disproportion arising in human body of three main components – sulfur, mercury, and salt – which he believed to be a part of all beings.

For instance, he believed excess of sulfur in the body caused fever. Thus, with Paracelsus was the birth of medical science or pharmacology as an extension of alchemy.

One alchemist of the seventeenth century, and allegedly the last alchemist, was Isaac Newton (1642 -1727) thoroughly studied alchemy and allegedly used both mechanical and alchemical form of the sciences (White 1999, Dobbs 1991). Newton strongly believed in alchemy. He believed in the holy magical value of the number seven, which he considered to be a sacred number based on the then known number of planets.

Newton is often described as a word genius is often used (Dobbs 1975, 152). As pointed out by Patricia Fara, Newton is considered to be one of the greatest scientific minds ever (Fara 2002, xv). But Newton, in a strict sense, was not a scientist.

This is mainly because the word scientist was invented a hundred years after his death. Newton was absolutely engaged in the study of celestial mechanics and mathematics which actually earned him fame but rather for his extensive study of alchemy, astrology and chronologies of ancient people (Fara 2002, 1).

By the notion of modern day science, it is difficult to distinguish him exclusively a scientist of rational and mechanical mind. His religious and alchemical work assumes importance for he devoted much of his time in the study of these arts even though he is considered to be the father of modern science (Farina 2003, 9).

He paradoxically is credited of being accountable for work which rendered magic and mysticism more weak did so by consuming volumes of works which had close proximity with practices which his work is said to resist. The present idea of alchemy came with Newton’s alchemical and theological studies due to two post-17th century developments – rejection of alchemy and segregation of religion from science (Dobbs 1990, 129).

Though the full text is not available on Newton’s alchemical research and occult beliefs, it can be stressfully said that they had great amount of interest to him. There was extensive evidence in his library in form of treatise and manuscripts which indicated literature on alchemy, hermeticism, and Paracelsian philosophy which was considered important studies for scholars of his time.

In addition, Newton along with many contemporary figures, believed that alchemy in its obscure, symbolic, and allegorical texts held immense truth about the universe. He believed that this truth might help in unraveling the mystery of God’s creation. It was also thought that these texts might help in decoding the prophecies present in the bible, especially the apocalyptic texts of Daniel and Revelation.

Newton along with many other philosophers of his time distinguished between their quest for science and biblical knowledge. Through both the disciplines a search for the divine plan was undertaken and was believed that each might help with the other (Webster 1982 , 10). Newton studied alchemy with an obsession and successfully reproduced his beliefs and findings in drawings, and drew the actual structure of Solomon’s temple, which he believed to posses’ divine inspiration and contained coded secrets that reflected the very structure of the universe over and above clues to future predictions. White believes that Newton thought he was the new Solomon who had been bestowed with the charge to carry out the God-given task of unlocking the secrets of the universe whether they were scientific, religious of alchemical (White 1999, 158-162).

Manuel thinks that the world-view of medieval alchemy of Paracelsus was not very different from the beliefs of Newton. He thus states:

The more Newton’s theological and alchemical, chronological and mythological work is examined as a whole corpus, set by the side of his science, the more it becomes apparent that in his moments of grandeur he saw himself as the last of the interpreters of Gods will in actions, living on the eve of the fulfillment of times.” (Manuel 1974, 23)

The late 17th century an intellectual still somewhat believed in the world-view of alchemy. Even if the exploit of ritual had declined among the scholars as a means of using the universe by altering and making things happen, the design that the magus might unlock the occult qualities and secrets through the use of natural magic had not. At the very least, the skillful might attain some spiritual achievement and transcendence of the human condition.

The basic potent and theoretical frame for magic in addition to the definite prospect remained intact throughout the time of Newton’s lifetime (Webster 1982 , 2-5). Francis Yates and others argue that alchemy was substituted by science which was primarily a change of name and modern science was born (Yates 1967, 272)

Newton did the same by keeping his association with alchemy separated from the pursuit of the sciences for which he gained acclaims.

Thus, he successfully drew the barrier for “scientific” and “magical”, the former being acceptable and the later not acceptable. Thus, there arose the new genre of discipline which bifurcated science its magical, hermetic, alchemical, astrological, and philosophical roots of alchemy and formed a new discipline (Hutchison 1982).

Thus, Newton’s interest in alchemy and his affiliation and influence by many men who held alchemical and hermetic ideas was not a surprise for the scholarly world. He was influenced by the ideas of Paracelsus and owned a few copies of his work (Webster 1982 , 9). He also is believed to have possessed a copy of the six volume set of Elias Ashmole’s alchemical collection, Theatrum Chemicum Britanicum (Yates 1967, 256).

He is believed to have copied the books and manuscripts by hand. According to Christianson, Newton read almost all of the great alchemical masters’ works such as such as Raymond Lull (1235-1315), Paracelsus (1493-1541), Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662), Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), Basil Valentine (15th century), and Michael Maier (1566-1622) (Christianson 1984, 217). Newton also studied a few of the Rosicrucian manuscripts which created much interest in alchemy in the 17th century (Yates 1967, 221-262).

Even though Isaac Newton studied the lives and works of alchemists he chose not to reveal his experimentation with alchemy to the world and did not publish and of his findings in alchemy (Dobbs 1991, 1). The reason behind Newton’s choice of secrecy was not apprehendable.

Maybe, as Christianson believes, that maybe he never achieved what he wanted to find and so chose not to reveal his unfinished work or maybe he feared someone stealing the material and achieving the success for him or herself (Christianson 1984, 231). What is even more surprising was his concern regarding some possible publications of a few alchemical secrets by Robert Boyle (1627-1691) (Christianson 1984, 233).

Maybe he was apprehensive of the revelation of his association with the occult with his major discoveries. Or maybe he was concerned about his public image. But there is no doubt that he was aware that the very attempt to transmute base metals into gold was an offense punishable by death during the time of Newton. This might have been a great danger for him as a Master of the Mint (White 1999, 87).

Many historians and biographers of Newton were completely taken aback when they came to know of his immense interest in alchemy.

One of them was Sir David Brewster in his Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton who, as Christianson so concisely put it, “Even in the nineteenth century hero worship had its limits.” (Christianson 1984, 204) Brewster undoubtedly was thrown into an emotional cognitive dissension trying to merge a rational scientist and alchemist in Newton. As Christian states:

“Sir David Brewster’s discovery that Newton had indiscriminately immersed himself in the writings of alchemical adepts therefore came as a bitter blow.

He was haunted by the specter of Newton as a cloaked and bearded magus personified in literature and limelight by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero. More appalling still were the images of such real-life figures such as Dr. John Dee, an original Fellow of Newton’s own Trinity College.” (Christianson 1984, 220)

The early biographers of Newton of the Victorian age showed “candor was the least prized of virtues” (Christianson 1984, 220). It is believed that many historians and biographers of Newton’s life have not revealed it. Even Brewster who was truthful enough to mention Newton’s practice of alchemy, he failed to reveal the extent to which Newton devoted himself to the alchemical quest (Christianson 1984, 220).

To make the notion of Newton and Boyle’s practice of alchemy as that they were simply testing the recipes of their predecessors and they were really motivated by a desire to make new discoveries in chemistry thus separating the alchemy from chemistry (Dobbs 1975, 11).

But this argument fails to exist with recent scholarly works. Newton’s researches in alchemy were associated with his exploration of God. Thus, his quest was religious as well as scientific. White quoted John Conduitt (1688-1737 C. E.) while talking about an aging Newton states, “They who search for the Philosopher’s Stone [are] by their own rules obliged to a strict & religious life. That study [is] fruitful of experiments.” (White 1999, 121)

Newton’s aim was to find the Philosopher’s Stone and to reveal the truth behind the universe, the riddle that God was himself. He was preoccupied in the pursuit of divinity: “the divine unity revealed in nature.” (Yates 1967, 257). His aim was not simple materialistic or earthly development of a discipline, namely chemistry but to reveal greater truth about the universe.

Undoubtedly, he made several discoveries towards chemical and physical sciences but he then transcended his findings towards the greater truth. As Christensen had confirmed, Newton did not start with alchemy and then developed chemistry but it was the other way round that he started with chemistry and proceeded to alchemy (Christianson 1984, 212).

According to Richard Westfall Newton’s curiosity in alchemy as a kind of revolt against the mechanistic philosophy first devised by Descartes (Westfall 1980, 301). Newton’s study of alchemy was a process of making mechanical science one with religion and philosophy.

The 17th century philosophers believed that the God for Descartes was moving towards extinction. (Dobbs 1990, 135) Newton’s findings and studies was a revolt against this aesthetic belief that was gripping the era wherein he wanted to prove the existence of God by finding the activating spirit that moved matter (Dobbs 1991, 187).

However much it differs with the innate iconic picture of Newton, there is little ambiguity that much of Newton’s time and effort was dedicated to the pursuit of alchemy. Betty Jo Dobbs while discussion the world-view that was helped in the development in Newton’s success in mathematics and physical science, states,

Thus it became a curious anomaly- and one to be explained away that Newton’s studies in astronomy, optics, and mathematics only occupied a small portion of his time. In fact most of his great powers were poured out upon church history, theology, “the chronology of ancient kingdoms,” prophecy, and alchemy.” (Dobbs 1975, 6)

Difference between European Alchemy and Chinese Taoism

The Chinese alchemists were the followers of Lao Tzu who was the founder of the philosophies of Taoism (Taylor 1992, 72). Taoism was born in the 6th century BC, and rapidly became associated with wonder-making and magic. Its main potent was to bring the body in alignment with the Tao, i.e. the way of the universe, and become immortal.

This mystical journey with Tao was possible through the great mystical and spiritual gift and those who failed to take the long arduous rout, took the short-cut of drinking the “the drug of transfusion.” (Taylor 1992, 73) This drug could be made though a chemical process of mixing sulfide, gold, and then silver.

This also consisted of transfusion of cinnabar to gold to be used to prolong life seems to be an idea which lingered in China from the 2nd century BC. The process also consisted of processes like distillation, crystallization, and evaporation (Taylor 1992, 73-74) which is similar to European alchemy. The notion of philosopher’s stone was also first herd in the Chinese Taoism.

Thus, there are uncanny parallel between Chinese and Western alchemy but the fact the Chinese Taoism restricted itself to the process of prolonging life and the latter a means of obtaining wealth draws the line of difference between the two.


Alchemy in Europe was an art and science of the ancients. It was not magic or religion. It was philosophy, scientific experimentation, religion, and theology. The practitioners of alchemy in the European countries through the medieval ages derived their knowledge of the subject from the Islamic world, and perused it with great diligence.

Their aim was not completely materialistic but had the underpinning of the both. From their studies that have given birth to the modern day disciplines such as chemistry, astrology, physics, and medicine (more specifically pharmacy). The development of alchemy had coincided with an era which openly experimented with the truth of the Universe and questioned man’s existence.

The findings of the medieval alchemists have contributed greatly to the pursuit of modern day physics, chemistry, and medicine. This can be understood when we study the works of Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Paracelsus. Moreover, many of the instruments used for laboratory use were derived from the instruments used by medieval alchemists. They even identified minerals and the basic elements of the universe which helps in transmutation.

Thus, alchemy as a discipline contributed greatly to the development of modern day sciences. Even though the aesthetic affiliation of the discipline is not present but the essence remains the same i.e. questioning the unknown.

Like the alchemists, even the modern scientists want to reveal the truth behind the universe and the secret of Nature. Even though there are marked differences between the two, alchemy can definitely be called the forerunner of modern day science.


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