Strange and Desperate Cures

Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution

by William R. Newman
Harvard University Press, 348 pp., $49.95

In March of 1665 the Great Plague arrived in London. The traditionalist doctors of the London College of Physicians fled the city, leaving their buildings at Amen Corner to be pillaged by thieves. By contrast, a number of radical doctors, men who prescribed the modern chemical medicines of Paracelsus and later medical alchemists, remained at their posts and continued to work. Thus George Thomson, who rejected the classical methods he had studied at Leiden in favor of the divinely revealed cures of true medical chemistry, refused to panic. He hung around his neck “a large Toad dried, prepared not long before in as exquisite a manner as possibly I could, with my own fingers.” He took the powder of another toad, prepared by his friend George Starkey. And he thus found the strength not only to stay in London but even to dissect the corpse of a plague victim, and lived to tell the story.

Thomson’s “dear friend Dr. Starkey” was not so lucky. Despite his mastery of chemical cures, including the “Trochisk” of powdered toad that he prepared for Thomson, a bubo appeared in his groin and he died the very night after he visited his friend. Thomson had to explain Starkey’s death away as the result of an excessive indulgence in small beer, which had slowed his digestion and the movement of his blood. Hence, as Starkey himself had explained to those in his confidence, “all the Medicines that he had in possession were of no force to do him any good.” Nonetheless, he worked on heroically to the last:

Dr. Starkey went to and fro with the mortal Arrow sticking in his side unfelt: and withall, so great was his employment, and medicinal negotiation at that time, that it was both hard to finde him out, and likewise to divert him from those engagements of visiting his Patients he had taken upon him.

No rebel against unjust authority, political or intellectual, ever staged a more crowd-pleasing death scene than Starkey’s.

Not many dead rebels have ever enjoyed a more satisfying posthumous vindication either: for as William Newman shows in his impressive book, long after Starkey himself had passed from the scene, the alchemical works he had written under the impressive pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes continued to find fascinated readers across Europe. Eirenaeus was widely credited with wonderful cures, including the restoration of an old lady’s hair and teeth and the bringing to fruition of a withered peach tree. Leibniz and Newton were only two of the many highly esteemed natural philosophers who devoted careful attention to his murkily allegorical books, pullulating with strange images and bizarre illustrations. These continued to be praised and reprinted deep into the supposed Age of Reason.

Newman has pulled off two remarkable achievements in a single book—and one of modest size at that. To begin with, he has reconstructed the career of an intellectual adventurer whose talents for investigating the natural world and for promoting his own fame were equally…

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