Alchemy in a History of Science Classroom
Alchemy has been a contentious space in which historians of science have engaged in the recurrent debate on what exactly constitutes “science,” and because of its spiritual and religious components, alchemy was often placed into the pseudoscientific category. Recent scholarship, however, has reaffirmed its position amongst other Medieval and Early Modern subsets of natural philosophy. Authors have cited its experimental programs of research, theoretical underpinning, and lab-based analysis and synthesis as evidence for its inclusion in the narrative of the history of science, and because of this, I believe that it should not be left out of a history of science survey course. Aside from its “scientific” characteristics, alchemy also provides avenues through which to discuss the interaction between practical and theoretical knowledge, entrepreneurial motivations that influenced natural philosophical inquiry, and the complicated relationship between science and religion.
I would begin a lecture on alchemy by discussing it in its eighteenth century context; this is when it was marginalized in order to legitimate the developing profession of chemistry. I would talk about how previously, the two investigative subsets were part of a larger research program focused on changing and understanding the properties of materials — notably metals, minerals, and other substances. The discussion would touch on who exactly was engaged in the pursuit (many of the “Big Men” made famous by their contributions to other fields, women, and craftsmen), and on the methods employed by these practitioners. Alchemists would read from ancient (and not-so-ancient) alchemical texts, comment on them, perform the experiments, and sometimes make modifications to the recipes, and they worked in labs where they performed distillations and synthesized compounds. I would highlight how these analytical and lab strategies are still used by scientists today.
Next, I would discuss what makes alchemy unique — its convoluted, secretive language and association with the spiritual and religious. While at first this might feel quite anti-scientific to many students, it puts alchemy (and Medieval and Early Modern scientific inquiry) into its context. Knowledge production was not always a secular affair, and alchemy’s engagement with the metaphysical, instead of a weakness, was a strength at the time it was being practiced. People sought deeper meanings for natural phenomena, and the philosophical framework from which they were working (Christianity with heavy Aristotelian influences) encouraged the search for final causes, symbols, and forms. Alchemy provides an excellent conduit for a discussion about what natural philosophy included in its lines of inquiry and elucidates the difference between itself and our modern construction of knowledge-gathering, science.
Alchemy’s significance to the history of science is therefore quite pronounced. Far from pseudoscientific magic, alchemy was a research program with goals, theories, and methods, and its practitioners were widespread and influential. As such, any survey of the history of science should include it and capitalize on the opportunity to discuss the issues alchemy brings to the forefront: early experimentalism, the relationship between practical and theoretical knowledge, and science and religion’s strong association.