The Roots of Chemistry: How the Ancient Tradition of Alchemy Influenced Modern Scientific Thought

2020-05-08T16:18:53-07:00 May 8th, 2020|Biology|

By Reshma Kolala, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology 22’

Author’s Note: A scientific education today often omits the origins of modern scientific thought. I was interested in understanding how early philosophers built the foundation of modern scientific disciplines such as chemistry and physics through the ancient tradition of alchemy alongside rational thought and reasoning. 


The ancestral equivalents of many modern branches of science have shaped the face of scientific innovation. Alchemy, the predecessor of modern chemistry, has influenced the discovery of several scientific concepts and experimental methodologies that have constructed the foundational basis of empirical science. 

Alchemy had roots in philosophy, astronomy, and religion. It spanned beyond empirical science, combining spirituality with experimental observation to decipher the intricacies of nature. Alchemy was infatuated with the creation of new materials, such as transmutation of base metals into precious metals such as gold [1]. Alchemists also strived to uncover or create a universal elixir, “[a] substance that would indefinitely prolong life” [2].  The element of spirituality, specifically the belief in ultimate divine perfection sustained these ideals. Because it was believed that nature always strives to achieve perfection, the transmutation of say, lead, into gold, was considered to simply be a matter of chemical catalyzation. This required an understanding of the composition and complexities of the natural world. In doing so, alchemists contributed to an incredible diversity of what would be later considered as major chemical industries such as metallurgy, the production of paints, inks, and dyes, and cosmetics [3].

Alchemy can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a court alchemist and physician, was the first to introduce experimental methodology into alchemy and is credited with the invention of several chemical processes used in modern chemistry. These include, “crystallization, calcinations, sublimation and evaporation, the synthesis of acids (hydrochloric, nitric citric, acetic and tartaric acids), and distillation. [4]”  Hayyan applied this knowledge to improve manufacturing processes that allowed advancements in major industries both then and today, including glass-making, the development of steel, the dyeing of cloth, and the prevention of rust. Hayyan’s contribution to alchemy paralleled the previously developed Aristotelian theory of elements which suggested the existence of four core elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Hayyan suggested the existence of different categories of matter, including spirits (which vaporize upon heating), metals, and stones (which can be converted into powder). Jabir’s work laid the foundation for the structured classification of chemical substances. His practice and encouragement of systematic experimentation began to transform alchemy from a superstitious practice to a proper scientific discipline.

Compared to European alchemy, Chinese alchemy had a more obvious application to medicine and was influenced by Taoism, a philosophical and religious tradition of living in harmony with the natural order of the universe, and traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture, Tai Chi, and meditation focus on the purification of the spirit in hopes of achieving immortality, a core value in alchemy [5]. In an attempt to uncover an elixir for eternal life, Chinese alchemists accidentally invented gunpowder, which would go on to have major social and political implications [6].


The Decline of Alchemy and Rise of Modern Chemistry

Alchemy regained popularity in Renaissance Europe and influenced many modern scientists, including Issac Newton and Robert Boyle, both of which were also alchemists. Considered as the father of chemistry, Robert Boyle is most notably known for Boyle’s law, which observed the inverse relationship between the volume of a gas and its pressure. Boyle, however, was far from a scientist in the modern sense and was considered to be a natural philosopher. Boyle was interested in transmutation and constructed the “corpuscularian hypothesis” in which he describes all matter consisting of varied arrangements of identical “corpuscles,” known today as particles [7]. According to his theory, Boyle believed that transmutation was just a matter of rearrangement. Boyle wrote The Sceptical Chymist to assert his hypothesis, officially establishing chemistry as the science of the composition of substances. This marked the official separation of modern chemistry from the mystical qualities of alchemy. Through the span of several millennia, alchemists “were learning fundamental principles of chemistry: breaking down ores, dissolving metals with acids, and precipitating metals out of solution [8].” This laid the foundations of basic scientific experimentation with modern alchemists such as Boyle emphasizing the importance of consistent and accurate results. This pioneered the development of chemical analysis and the scientific method.  Boyle also rejected the Aristotelian theory of elements and recognized that certain substances decompose into other substances. This brought forth the first conceptions of a chemical element, a state of matter that cannot be further decomposed [9]. Despite denouncing mysticism, Boyle remained an alchemist and believed, correctly, that one element could be transmuted to another through rearrangement of the basic particles making up the element. This was achieved by Ernest Rutherford in 1919 when he transformed nitrogen into oxygen by aiming alpha particles at nitrogen atoms. This resulted in the formation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, establishing the first man-made nuclear reaction [10]. Rutherford is considered a father of nuclear physics, illustrating the multidisciplinary influence of alchemy in many modern sciences. 

Alchemic practice also had implications in medicine. Philippus Paracelsus, a prominent Swiss physician, applied general alchemic principles to a more realistic model such as the human body. Similar to the idea of transmutation, he believed that organs could be transformed from sick to healthy, implying the use of chemicals to treat illness. Paracelsus pioneered the integration of chemicals and bodily medicine in what would later develop as toxicology [11]. This launched an entirely new branch of science where inorganic materials were used in conjunction with the human body, including the use of mercury to treat syphilis [12]. Paracelsus is also known for his creation of laudanum, otherwise known as opium [13]. The most active substance in opium is morphine, which is a powerful painkiller and is used for anesthetic purposes .

The rise of modern chemistry does not mark the dissolution of alchemy but rather symbolizes a departure from the occultism of the ancient tradition to embrace a more empirical method of scientific discovery. Although alchemy is considered to be an ancient science, it can be regarded as a necessary precursor to the development of modern chemistry and it continues to have implications on scientific discovery today. 



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