On the 11th February 1144 the Hellenistic science of alchemy entered medieval Europe by way of the Islamic empire. In his translation of Liber de compositione alchemiae (Book about the composition of alchemy) Robert of Chester wrote the following:
I have translated this Book because, what alchemy is, and what its composition is, almost no one in our Latin [that is: Western] world knows finished February 11th anno 1144.
This was the start of long and popular period for alchemy within Europe, which reached its peak during the Renaissance during which alchemy gave birth to its daughter, modern chemistry. Rejected during the Enlightenment, along with astrology and magic, as a worthless occult science, alchemy was largely ignored by historian as superstitious nonsense not worthy of serious attention. The last decades have seen a rebirth of interest in alchemy by historians of science led by such prominent historians as Lawrence Principe, William Newman, Bruce Moran and Pamela H. Smith as well as a host of less well known figures such as my Internet friends Anna Marie Roos (@roos_annamarie) and Sienna Latham (@clerestories).
In the last few weeks there has been a surge in interest from the general Internet media mostly generated by Lawrence Principe’s recently published semi-popular history of alchemy The Secrets of Alchemy. This has been mostly fairly harmless but one Internet piece that I read last week is so confused that it provoked my inner Hist-Sci Hulk, especially as it totally misrepresents Newton’s interest and involvement in alchemy. The piece Is Alchemy Back In Fashion? by science writer Hank Campbell is on the Science 2.0 website.
Campbell’s piece was not inspired by Principe’s book but by the essay, Alchemy Restored, that Principe wrote for Focus section of ISIS vol. 102, No. 2 Alchemy and the History of Science. This essay is a very much-shortened version of chapter four of his book, Redefinitions, Revivals, and Reinterpretations: Alchemy from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.
To point out and correct everything that is wrong in Campbell’s piece would turn this post into a minor novel so I shall just content myself with a bit of sniping and correcting his mistaken views on Newton’s relationship with alchemy. The first thing I would note is that before writing his piece Campbell appears to have done his research at the Google University, beloved source of wisdom of vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, anti-evolutionists and other members of the Internet Luniverse. His piece would have benefitted immensely if he had read some of the books written by Principe, Newman, Moran et al. However reading doesn’t seem to be his forte as he doesn’t seem to have actually read the essay by Principe that he heavily criticises in his piece, either that or he maliciously misrepresents Principe’s views.
The whole of the opening paragraphs displays strong Google University influence containing as it does half information that is mostly at least half wrong. There are various conflicting etymologies for the word alchemy or better said the word chemy as al is purely the Arabic definite article. Principe thinks the Greek root cheimeia is the most likely as alchemy in antiquity was Greco-Egyptian, that is it was developed in Egypt but written in Greek. This leading to the Arabic al-kīmiyā of al-Rāzī and the alchemia of the Renaissance adepts. Like those in the eighteenth century who, as Principe tells us, tried to distance chemistry from alchemy Campbell falsely identifies alchemy with the transmutation of metals, correctly called chrysopoeia, whereas seventeenth century alchemy encompassed a wide range of activities including all of that, which in the early eighteenth century became chemistry.
The central point of Principe’s essay is that the chemist of the eighteenth century deliberately misrepresented the scope of alchemy in order to deny that their own discipline was alchemy’s daughter. I find it fascinating that Campbell a science writer with a background in computing, who very obviously knows next to nothing about the history of alchemy and chemistry lectures Principe, who is without doubt one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, on why he is wrong in his analysis of the eighteenth century’s denigrating of alchemy’s reputation. Even more bizarre in the following paragraph:
You know which group was also ridiculed, even until the mid-1800s? Medical doctors. Many people thought Harvard was out of its mind creating a medical school in 1782, but they took it seriously and within a few generations medicine had put quacks on the fringes and adopted evidence-based practices. Before then, legitimate doctors were Ph.D.s and Medical Doctors were that other thing that didn’t count. Today, though, if you say doctor people assume you are an M.D.
The whole of this is so mind bogglingly wrong that it is not even worth criticising except to say that if it were written on paper I would flush it down the toilet. Let us now turn our attention to the good Isaac Newton and his activities as an alchemist. The all-knowing Campbell informs us:
Newton tried alchemy, after all, because he wanted to get to the bottom of it and maybe show chemists he was smarter than they were, just like he showed everyone else he was smarter than they were (I mean you, Hooke.)
The break between alchemy and chemistry had been happening before Newton, that is why he took a shot at it, but until the 18th century they were interchangeable to the public.
I’ve read many misrepresentations of Newton’s alchemical activities but this has got to be one of the worst that has ever crossed my path. Campbell gives the impression that Newton took a swing at alchemy in passing nothing could be further from the truth. For the record, Newton devoted the winter months of the year to an intensive study of alchemy, in a hut especially specially constructed for the purpose, from 1666 until he departed Cambridge for London in 1696, a total of thirty years in case Mr Campbell can’t count. He also wrote substantially more on alchemy than he ever wrote on physics and mathematics combined. I would not call that “taking a shot at it”. Although there is some truth that the break between alchemy and chemistry began in the seventeenth century this is in no way the reason that Newton took up the study of alchemy. He was also not out to show chemists that he was smarter than they were. Apart from anything else Newton knew that he was smarter than everybody else, he didn’t need to show anybody anything. Before dealing with the real reasons for Newton’s intense interest in alchemy I’ll just deal with the ill informed sideswipe at the Hooke Newton conflict.
We’ve been here before but it bears repeating that it was Hooke who attacked Newton, not once but twice, and not the other way round. In fact, if anybody suffered from an intense need to show that he was smarter than everyone else it was the unfortunate Robert Hooke. Intensely jealous of others he, time and again, accused his contemporary natural philosophers of stealing his ideas, discoveries and inventions. He dismissed Newton’s first optics paper claiming that anything novel that it contained he had discovered already and then later he claimed that he should be acknowledge as the true discoverer of the universal law of gravity. It’s not really surprising that Newton disliked him. However I deviate from my purpose.
Why did Newton devote so much of his life to an intense study of alchemy? To understand his motivation one has to examine both his religious beliefs and the governing metaphysics of his whole life’s work, which are in fact two aspects of a single complex. Newton was an adherent of the prisca sapientia. This is the belief that directly after the creation, and Newton was a devote if more than somewhat heterodox Christian, humanity had a complete and perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, a knowledge that had become lost over the millennia as humanity degenerated. Following this metaphysic Newton did not believe that he was discovering the laws or secrets of nature but rediscovering them. In fact based on his reading of the Bible he believed that he had been especially chosen by his God to do so. In line with the hermeticism of his age he believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge possessed by humanity coming either shortly after Moses, or even from him or before him, and if he could unravel its secrets this would bring him closer to that perfect knowledge of nature once possessed by humanity in its early days. This is not a ‘modern scientist’ investigating the chemical aspects of alchemy, as Campbell would have us believe, but a man, we would have immense difficulty identifying with in anyway what so ever, following a twisted theological, metaphysical path that relates in no way to the world we now inhabit.
 This date and the following quote are taken from Aksel Haaning, The Philosophical Nature of Early Western Alchemy: The Formative Period c- 1150-1350, in Jacob Wamberg ed. Art & Alchemy, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen 2006 pp. 23-40, quote p. 25. When quoting the same date, in his The Secrets of Alchemy, Principe points out correctly that although it might be the first translation of an Arabic alchemy text it’s probably not the Latin West’s first contact with the discipline.
 Robert of Chester is well known in the history of mathematics for his translation of Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī’s Al-kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) the book that introduced algebra to the Latin West and which gave us both the words algebra and algorithm.