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  • The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest, including Boyle’s “Lost” “Dialogue on the Transmutation of Metals”
  • Allen G. Debus
Lawrence M. Principe. The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest, including Boyle’s “Lost” “Dialogue on the Transmutation of Metals.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. xiv + 339 pp. $45.00; £32.50.

It has long been known that Robert Boyle had an interest in alchemy. In this century, Louis Trenchard More discussed this in a 1941 article1 and made it a [End Page 500] chapter in his book on The Life and Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (1944). I even included a chapter on Boyle’s alchemy in my master’s thesis, “Robert Boyle and Chemistry in England 1660–1700” (1949). Much of the early interest in this subject was based on the correspondence of Newton and Locke after Boyle’s death; on Boyle’s 1678 paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on the “Degradation of Gold Made by an Anti-Elixir”; and on the part he played in the 1689 repeal of the 1404 statute against the multipliers of gold. Widespread though this knowledge may have been, however, it played little part in the positivistic history of science then dominant. Many historians ignored Boyle’s work on transmutatory alchemy, and others explained it simply as a case of “real” chemistry being presented in alchemical language.

In recent decades there has been a more contextual approach to the history of science. The work of Walter Pagel on Paracelsus and van Helmont, the work of Betty Jo Dobbs on Newton, and others have shown that the period of the scientific revolution must be viewed in its entirety, rather than extracting only those elements that seem to the historian to be part of “modern science.”

This new book on Robert Boyle should put to rest any doubts about his life-long belief in the transmutation of the base metals. Professor Principe begins by discussing the historiographic problem. The pruning of Boyle’s writings to eliminate his most “mystical” letters and papers began early in the eighteenth century. By the early twentieth century he was known primarily as the “father of chemistry,” as a worthy exemplar of the seventeenth-century school of mechanical philosophy, and—always—as the inventor of the vacuum pump. Those who did recognize some of his work as alchemical generally dismissed it as juvenilia. But Principe shows here that Boyle’s fascination with transmutation is evident throughout his life, and that key letters and works supporting this were not published during his lifetime and were not considered for inclusion in the various eighteenth-century collections of his works. In short, through editing, he became one of the eighteenth-century “enlightened.”

The facts present a different Boyle. In a reappraisal of The Sceptical Chymist, Principe shows that this work is primarily an attack on the Paracelsians and the seventeenth-century chemical textbook authors. He then proceeds to a study of the extant portions of Boyle’s previously unpublished “Dialogue on Transmutation,” written sometime between ca. 1675 and 1685, in which the objections to transmutation are overturned. Boyle’s own account of witnessing a transmutation is presented, and his acceptance of secrecy regarding this process is typical of other alchemical authors. Principe is aware of nine different ciphers used by Boyle to hide his alchemical accounts. A long chapter on Boyle’s contacts with other alchemists is capped with a fascinating account of his correspondence with Georges Pierre in the late 1670s.

One paper of special importance to Boyle described the incalescence of mercury. This appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1676,2 but it appears to [End Page 501] have been a discovery of George Starkey a quarter-century earlier. Boyle felt that this mercury was an essential step toward the production of the Philosophers’ Stone, but he admitted that he had been unable to produce the Stone himself. In a chapter on Boyle’s motivation for these studies, Principe lists Boyle’s belief that alchemy would prove to be of service both to natural philosophy and to the promotion of practical arts; that it would contribute to medicine...

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