Exploded systems: views of alchemy in the 19th century

As has been highlighted in previous posts, we historians of science are on our guard against being whiggish in our discussions of past science but, in the process, have a tendency to be just that in our treatment of historiography: we have a whiggish tendency to see a natural progress in historical analysis towards our current standards and outlook. We take it for granted that early historians of science – usually scientists themselves – were historiographical innocents, and that they were intolerant of anything that diverged from what they viewed as the main line of scientific advance. If we look, for example, at the treatment of alchemy in 19th-century histories of science, it is undoubtedly the case that more was known about the subject, and it attracted more sympathetic analysis, at the end of the century than at the beginning. We can’t just put this down to natural and inevitable “progress” in historiography but we can ask who read, collected and published on alchemical texts, and why?

For many, alchemy was deeply problematic. It caused Newton’s biographer David Brewster all sorts of horrors to discover the extent of his hero’s alchemical writings in the archive: “we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave”.1 Such hostility to alchemy was commonplace amongst the historically-minded opticians, mathematicians and astronomers who wrote about Newton. But what of chemists? Were they more sympathetic or even celebratory of their alchemical heritage?

Alchemistic apparatus, depicted in H. Stanley Redgrove's "Alchemy: Ancient and Modern"

Initially the answer would appear to be no. Thomas Thomson, in his 1830 History of Chemistry, appeared embarrassed by chemistry’s uniquely “rude and disgraceful beginnings”, with “delusion and superstition” and the “reveries of fanatics or impostors”.2 Similarly, in 1843 Henry M. Noad introduced his Lectures on Chemistry with a brief description of “the absurd notions” and “avaricious views peculiar to alchymists” and, in 1838, a William White told a provincial audience of alchemy’s avarice, short-sightedness and folly, and suggested that his inclusion in a lecture on the history of chemistry was more a “useful moral lesson” than a means of understanding chemistry.3  

Alchemy could, in this way, provide an excellent foil to the progress and achievements of modern chemistry: showing the darkness that preceded the light of true science. In their essay on the problematic historiography of alchemy William Newman and Lawrence Principe have shown that men like Thomson took on wholesale the anti-alchemical propaganda of the eighteenth century, which succeeded in “recasting … alchemy as ‘other’ relative to chemistry” and limited to little other than gold-making and fraud. As John C. Powers has written in his essay on the end of alchemy in the 18th century, “the eighteenth-century ‘alchemist’ was a fictional character on to which chemists projected all of the negative characteristics previously associated with both chemists and alchemists”.4

However, this was not the entire story, for historians of chemistry, unlike, for example, William Whewell (who privileged mathematical above experimental sciences and ideas above practice), did admit that some of the products of alchemy were useful and, therefore, had a role in the foundation of modern chemistry. These products – the discovery of substances, development of processes and invention of instruments – and were worthy of notice even if, as was usually said, they were the chance result of indefatigable labour rather than real understanding of nature. Alternatively, alchemists who made important contributions were credited with having some of the virtues of the modern chemist: those who wrote clearly were praised, and contrasted with those whose obscure, secret and metaphorical writings failed to conform to later scientific virtues of open communication. However, while many chemist-historians used alchemy to throw into relief the approaches, standards and morality that were to be promoted as part of modern science, there were some who did precisely the opposite. A small number were interested in alchemy because they felt it offered something that modern chemistry was currently lacking. There was, for some, something to be admired in alchemy’s speculative boldness or its religious and non-materialist aspects. It is for these reasons that we find chemists such as Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday expressing limited admiration for alchemists.

Alchemy was, of course, most (in)famous for the speculation that transmutation of substances was possible, because there was only one type of basic matter. Similar ideas were maintained by some chemists throughout the 19th century (see David Knight’s The Transcendental Part of Chemistry), who tended, as a result, to treat alchemy more sympathetically. Samuel Brown, for example, who believed in the unity of matter and actually claimed to have carried out a successful transmutation, compared the ideas of his hero Davy with those of alchemical writers like Geber. Brown warned against the modern “epochal vanity” that condemned the alchemists: “In fine, there is probably as much nonsense believed, and as much truth rejected, in these our own times, as at any other period”.5 Enthusiasm for his chemical theory led to this finely non-whiggish statement.

The idea of universal matter gained momentum, initially in opposition to the materialistic atomic theory. By the end of the century, M.M. Pattison Muir published Alchemical Essence and the Chemical Element, which stated that modern “Chemistry raises a question which is very like the question of alchemy. Is there in nature one primary kind of matter of which, and of which only, all those things we are accustomed to call different kinds of matter are composed?”6 In the early 20th century, H. Stanley Redgrove in Alchemy: Ancient and Modern could, with the discovery of radioactivity, state that “modern science indicates the essential truth of alchemistic doctrine”.7 However, while celebrating older ideas on the nature of matter, these writers could also point to modern scientific values to explain why modern chemistry was successful where alchemy failed.

Another trend was the rise of interest in alchemy among occultists. Newman and Principe have described the ‘spiritual’ interpretation as the view that alchemy “was an art of internal meditation or illumination rather than an external manipulation of apparatus and chemicals”.8 They argue that the effect of this movement on the historiography of alchemy has been detrimental, largely because it introduced a false distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘spiritual’ alchemy: the “quasi-scientific” occultists provoked some chemists to re-examine their history and reclaim their heritage, emphasising the ‘scientific’ over the ‘spiritual’. Henry Carrington Bolton, who read a paper in 1897 on “The revival of alchemy” before the New York Section of the American Chemical Society, described the claims about alchemy made by the “educated charlatans” of occultist societies.9 His view of the topic is clear from the fact that works on alchemy, many of which he owned, form a significant part of his massive Bibliography of Chemistry.

By the end of the century alchemy formed the subject of a steady stream of books, both by chemists and non-chemists. The distinctly hostile attitudes to alchemy propounded by Brewster and Thomson were, essentially, products of the 18th century and of a time when chemistry needed to defend itself against critics and establish itself as a true science. Confidence with the successes of chemistry and its professionalisation lessened the need for a sharp differentiation between alchemy and chemistry. This cultural success of science, the rising authority of scientists and the accompanying secularisation of society can, of course, be seen as provoking the rise of the occultist movement, including the new interest in alchemy. From whatever perspective, alchemy was a useful contrast to modern chemistry, whether it was used to emphasise what was to be admired or perhaps what was missing from or wrong with contemporary science.


1. David Brewster, Memoirs of the life, writings and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Edinburgh, 1855), ii, p. 375.

2. Thomas Thomson, The History of Chemistry, (London, 1830), i, p.2.

3. Henry M. Noad, Lectures on chemistry; including its applications in the arts: and the analysis of organic and inorganic compounds (London, 1843), p. 1; William White, Chemist, The History of the Rise and Progress of Chemistry, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (York, 1838), p. 36.

4. Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman, “Some problems with the historiography of alchemy”, in William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (eds), Secrets of nature: astrology and alchemy in early modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2001), 385-431; John C. Powers, ‘“Ars sine Arte”: Nicholas Lemery and the end of alchemy in eighteenth-century France‘, Ambix 45 (1998), 163-89.

5. Samuel Brown, ‘Alchemy and the Alchemists’ [1843], in Lectures on the atomic theory and essays scientific and literary, (Edinburgh, 1858), i, 131-85, p. 163, 164.

6. M.M. Pattison Muir, The Alchemical Essence and the Chemical Element: an Episode in the Quest of the Unchanging (London, 1894), p. 89.

7. H. Stanley Redgrove, Alchemy: Ancient and Modern, being a brief account of the alchemistical doctrines, and their relations, to mysticism on the one hand, and to recent discoveries in physical science on the other hand; together with some particulars regarding the lives and teachings of the most noted alchemists (London, 1911), p. 140.

8. Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman, “Some problems with the historiography of alchemy”, in William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (eds), Secrets of nature: astrology and alchemy in early modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2001), 385-431, p. 388.

9. H. Carrington Bolton, “The revival of alchemy”, Science 6 (1897), 853-63, p. 854-5.

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