restricted access Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 218-220

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William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 344 pp. Ill. $40.00, £28.00 (0-226-57711-2).

The title of this important book alludes to the methodology employed by early modern iatrochemists as well as to the historiography brought to the subject by the authors. For, just as the chemist of the seventeenth century put elaborate theories and recipes to the test in the laboratory, a procedure of framing hypotheses and arbitration by experiment that is strikingly modern in approach, so do William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe bring the traditional narrative of the scientific revolution back to the hearth to see if it can withstand a renewed [End Page 218] examination of the evidence of practice. A central theme of their book is that the scrutiny of what was actually done by early chemists reveals a story of the emergence of modern science that conflicts in limited but important ways with the dominant historiography. Their collaboration builds on their earlier studies of the obscure seventeenth-century American chemist George Starkey, a.k.a. Eirenaeus Philalethes, and the much more visible English aristocrat Robert Boyle, whose Sceptical Chymist is widely regarded as marking a watershed between medieval alchemy and modern chemistry. The authors strengthen their earlier argument that such a dichotomy is an artifact of Enlightenment and modern idealizations and is unsupported by seventeenth-century evidence, which reveals no clear demarcation between alchemy and chemistry in either theory or practice. Not only was Boyle in his own lifetime regarded as a follower of the Paracelsian J. B. van Helmont as far as chemistry was concerned, but Boyle's chemistry, upon closer examination, is distinguishable from that of his mentor Starkey mainly by its lower standard of precision.

This volume surpasses the authors' previous studies in offering a broader contextualization of Starkey and Boyle in a way that more rigorously spells out why the actual practices of chemists and the ways in which these practices engaged theory now necessitate a revision of the place of chemistry in the scientific revolution. Although Newman and Principe seek to avoid the perception that they are iconoclasts out to discredit Boyle, the picture of the well-known father of chemistry that emerges requires that we take him off the pedestal on which Enlightenment ideologues and twentieth-century historians placed him and view him not as he portrayed himself, but in light of the wider historical record. This record, partly reconstructed from laboratory notebooks and correspondence, reveals Boyle and others affiliated with Samuel Hartlib's circle to have freely and silently appropriated the work of their fellows, sometimes while loudly protesting such practices in others. Close attention to telltale qualitative and quantitative markers reveals that Boyle's chemical training was primarily under Starkey's tutelage, and that Boyle explicitly "borrowed" processes from Starkey that Starkey had shared with him in confidence and passed them on to his competitors as his own, without acknowledging their provenance.

Fortunately, these same details permit the reconstruction of a likely continuity between Starkey and his sources—mainly van Helmont and Daniel Sennert, but also other iatrochemists and alchemists—and the chemical environment that nurtured Antoine Lavoisier. Indeed, an important part of the authors' continuity thesis is that key aspects of the "delayed" chemical revolution that are often associated with Lavoisier's revision of composition theory were pioneered by Paracelsians and medieval alchemists and elaborated into a coherent methodology by van Helmont and his "American acolyte" Starkey. Specifically, the careful weighing of reactants was an established element of alchemy (which was fused seamlessly with metallurgy). Moreover, the use of quantification as a tool for tracing specific constituents through reactions—Lavoisier's mass-balance calculation—was developed in the early seventeenth century by van Helmont, whose concern for mass lost as "gas" (a concept pioneered by the Belgian iatrochemist) [End Page 219...