Atoms and alchemy: chemistry and the experimental origins of the scientific revolution

Atoms and alchemy: chymistry and the experimental origins of the scientific revolution 

William Newman 

Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press 2006 | 250pp | $30.00 (SB) | ISBN 0226576973  

Reviewed by William Brock

In 1951, when history of science was in its professional infancy, a famous Cambridge historian notoriously dismissed historians of alchemy as ’tinctured with the same type of lunacy they set out to describe’. Faced with potential derision, historians of chemistry have for nearly 50 years denied themselves the possibility that alchemy played any significant role as a forerunner of the modern chemistry set in motion by Robert Boyle in the 1660s and revolutionised by Antoine Lavoisier a century later.  

Newman’s thesis is that alchemists were concerned with chemical change in general, and not just intent on a futile search for ways to transform natural materials into gold. For this reason, he prefers to call them ’chymists’ and their practice, ’chymistry’. As practical artisans, medieval chymists became familiar with reversible reactions, such as the complete recovery of silver after its dissolution in aqua fortis, and the heating of the yellow curds formed when salt of tartar (K2CO3) was added to the clear solution. Such evidence suggested a persistence of identity that contradicted the prevailing Aristotelian doctrine of matter and form. An underlying corpuscular structure of matter based on arrangements and textures seemed a better explanation for chymical phenomena and promoted the development of analysis as an essential tool of practice. The book demonstrates the importance of figures such as the 14th century Spanish alchemist Geber and the early 17th century German medical professor Daniel Sennert for providing Robert Boyle with the experimental evidence for the mechanical philosophy he developed and for the chemical atomism of Boyle’s successors, whom we recognise as chemists. 

The overwhelming evidence for this revolutionary thesis is presented in Atoms and alchemy, a book that will fascinate chemists willing to grapple with a little medieval scholastic philosophy concerning chemical composition. For historians of chemistry, the book firmly places chemistry in the forefront of the scientific revolution alongside astronomy and mechanics.