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 outsized. George Starkey was born in 1628 in remote Bermuda: he was the son of a clergyman gifted at writing Latin poetry, who went to the “Somers Islands,” as Bermuda was then called, to work for the conversion of “barbarians” to Christianity in “this final period of the aging world.” Sent to Harvard to study theology, George rapidly became interested in the scientific and pseudo-scientific pursuits that would remain at the center of his career. Even as he survived the rigors of New England winters and the Harvard curriculum, living with a roommate in a tiny cell within the drafty Old College, Starkey began to study medicine on the one hand and the obscure arts of alchemy on the other. A physician named Richard Palgrave introduced him to alchemy in 1644; by 1645, so he later recalled, he had begun to work “on the true matter.” In doing so he disappointed his elders, who had destined him for life as a cleric. But his change of plans, though it annoyed the authorities, did not shock them.
In fact, as Newman clearly shows, every grim corner of the New England landscape blazed not only with the mental fires of clerical intolerance but also with the actual fires of alchemical adepts, who included figures as respectable as John Winthrop, Jr., the first governor of Connecticut, son of the first governor of Massachusetts. Library shelves buckled under the hundreds of alchemical manuscripts and books that amateurs and professionals somehow managed to assemble. Iron foundries in Massachusetts and trading posts on the Connecticut frontier harbored efforts to prepare the philosopher’s stone. Starkey’s devoted effort to make a “philosophical mercury” fell within the normal bounds of medical and scientific activity. No wonder, then, that his medical practice flourished after he graduated with a BA in 1646 and left Harvard College—so much so that he could afford to pay an assistant five shillings a day, and served once in court as an expert medical witness, testifying that a sailor really was too sick to go on shipboard without imperiling his life. The quality of Starkey’s new connections seems to have been high: his brother-in-law, also a Harvard BA, would become governor of Massachusetts.
Despite these successes, Starkey found it impossible to remain in New England. The complex apparatus, rare materials, and extended working time an alchemist needed were hard enough to obtain in London, impossible in New England. It took extraordinary devotion, moreover, to continue work in colonial conditions: few had the mixture of patient curiosity and contempt for danger to keep a kettle full of rare materials boiling for years at a time, in the face of possible violence from Indians and certain frustration with the difficulties of the work. In 1650 Starkey pulled up stakes; and within a matter of months he succeeded in moving from Europe’s periphery to the white-hot center of intellectual life.
The London of the Puritan Revolution was thronged with radical idealists, brilliant applied scientists, and quacks of every description, locked in a bitter struggle to win support from the government for intellectual and political nostrums. New political theories, new agricultural methods, and new theologies were on offer at every bookshop. Hurling himself into the midst of this intellectual Raft of the Medusa, Starkey clambered rapidly to what looked like the top of the heap. His “rare and incomparable universal Witt” impressed men of wide contacts and experience. Samuel Hartlib, the brilliant German philosopher, publicist, and entrepreneur who had settled in England and worked there to transform the whole intellectual world of his day, eagerly collecting every hint, however faint, of the appearance of a key to all knowledge, saw him as immensely promising. So did Robert Boyle, the rich and richly gifted student of chemistry who had built a lavish laboratory in Pall Mall.
Starkey’s “strange and desperate cures” for dropsy and other diseases attracted widespread attention. Even more exciting were the complex hints that he began to drop, early in the 1650s, that he owed his great discoveries either to a mysterious “certain young friend,” whose name “I insist on hiding…forever (constrained by a vow),” or, more enticingly still, to divine inspiration received in dreams from a tutelary spirit who spoke in words “veiled, as it were by fog.”
Equally important, however, was Starkey’s dexterity as a chemist—a term which covered, in the mid-seventeenth century, a colorful variety of tasks and projects. By 1652 Starkey abandoned medicine for fulltime work as an alchemist. He joined John Dury, one of Hartlib’s associates, in a project for manufacturing aromatic oils, and collaborated with Boyle on specific chemical preparations. A longtime student of insects, who already as a boy in Bermuda had followed with fascinated, meticulous attention the life cycle of the mayfly, he devised a way of feeding bees cheaply on molasses as well as methods for producing, from honey, beer and ale “as cleere as rock Water.” In 1653 he worked on permanent lamp wicks, perhaps using asbestos, on augmenting saltpeter, and on making “perfect diamonds out of a certain Sea-Sand”—in the latter case using a method given him by an anonymous informant from the Orient. Starkey, in short, was not only a medical reformer, he was also one of the most ingenious and prolific of those strange figures, half con man and half high-tech entrepreneur, who were known at the time as projectors. These men swarmed in Puritan London as they did in every court and city in mid-seventeenth-century Europe, whispering into the ear trumpets of a wide and credulous clientele that they could forge irresistible weapons and provide rapid, easy riches for any patron willing to provide them with seed money, materials, and working space.1
Starkey’s ambitions embraced far more than small-scale tinkering with everyday technologies. He feared, as Newman shows, that Boyle, remembered as the brilliant author of The Sceptical Chymist, might dismiss him as a mere artificer, a craftsman like those who built Boyle’s own experimental apparatus. Hence, he tried very hard to convince Boyle that he had discovered something more than simple recipes for carrying out particular tasks: the alchemical “key into antimony.” Not ordinary ingenuity but divine revelations, conveyed in dreams, had provided Starkey with his method for making gold melt like ice in water. A series of further transformations, he intimated, would yield the philosopher’s stone. Newman elegantly demonstrates that Starkey’s professional success depended on his creation of the imaginary adept Eirenaeus Philalethes, whose mysterious teachings and marvelous dexterity, as Starkey described them, assured his own social and intellectual position. For a couple of years, Starkey seemed destined to take his place as one of the transformers of natural philosophy.
But as Starkey’s reputation took off, his life fell apart. His many projects interfered with one another, and at least some of them evidently failed unequivocally (in the case of recipes that took five and ten years to brew, it could be hard to tell). His experimental techniques also caused concern. At first he insisted on working in closed rooms with charcoal and mercury; then, when Boyle advised him to avoid poisoning himself, he simply removed the windows from his laboratory, gaining better ventilation but losing the capacity to regulate his furnace precisely. Either his violation of environmental safeguards or his exposure to the London air, or both, made him ill. Starkey exhausted the money he had brought with him from New England and the patience of his patrons and creditors. He found himself more than once in debtors’ prison, and had to hide out from his creditors.
Starkey temporarily found investors and support in Bristol, but also indulged in bouts of drunkenness, followed by outbreaks of deep Puritan remorse. Back in London during the Restoration, which Starkey supported, he found it impossible to make his way securely, since other doctors seized upon the new mass media of the time to sell derivatives of the remedies he had devised. Bitterly opposed to the vulgarians who “print every day Bills and Books, and by advertisements in the News-book give notice far and near of their preparations,” Starkey tried to show that such popular nostrums as Lockyer’s “Pill extracted from the rays of the sun” were cheap travesties of his own sovereign remedies. His chemical “alcahest,” he promised, would produce medicines that worked gently, treating diseases quickly and effectively, without resorting to the monstrously intrusive techniques, the clysters and emetics, gruesomely reminiscent of Molière, with which orthodox doctors tortured their patients. By contrast Lockyer’s pills, which promised similar results, turned out under analysis to be conventional emetics, compounded of antimony, sea salt, charcoal, and saltpeter.
Starkey worked, with allies, to organize a professional association of chemical doctors, in order to repel the competition of orthodox medical men and quacks simultaneously. And he greeted the plague as a test that would certainly prove the superiority of his God-given, profound remedies to those on offer from his rivals, whether they were university-educated Galenists or quacks who owned nothing but a mortar, a pestle, and a cat. Only his growing despair at the mistreatment he had received—so his friend Thomson argued—could explain the failure of his therapies to protect his own life.
This story of a forgotten career, though told with much learning and occasional wit, forms only one strand in the double helix of Newman’s book. He also seeks to identify the sources and explain the contents of Starkey’s chemical thought and practice. The obstacles to such a project that the historian of alchemy confronts would daunt most scholars. Early modern alchemists—so Newman shows—claimed to be the descendants of ancient sages like the Egyptian Hermes and Zosimos. Accordingly, they made every effort to show that they had drawn their ideas from earlier writers: often they expounded their own theories not in formal, coherent treatises but in commentaries on earlier texts, in which gruesomely enigmatic dog-gerel verses took the place occupied by formulas in modern chemistry. The seventeenth-century chemist who wished to designate Spiessglanz, antimony trisulfide, might do so thus:
Our Subject it is no ways mal- leable,
It is Metalline, and its colour sable,
With intermixed Argent, which in veins
The sable Field with glittering Branches stains.
Worse still, serious alchemists believed that any improvements they themselves had wrought in their art were the result of divine inspiration, and must be kept from defilement by the dirty hands of charlatans. Hence they couched their ideas not in prose but in pictures, verses, and accounts of visions, the one stranger than the other. Only true adepts would possess the hermeneutic key that made it possible to decipher the baffling sequence of mysteries such texts recounted. Phillalethes, in his Exposition upon the First Six Gates of Sir George Ripley’s Compound of Alchemie, brings the reader into a room with colorful hangings. It contains a rotten carcass, “a Serpent almost dead with cold, laid to the fire, and a Fountain still flowing forth to water a Pot which is nigh to it, in which is planted an Herb….” In the course of the text, Philalethes reports visions worthy of Lewis Carroll: beautiful ladies expand and contract like Alice before the caterpillar, a King, “wasted by Venery,” sweats so profusely that his body is almost consumed, and his Queen weeps so copiously that the river of her tears drowns both of them. All of this makes only the beginning to an endless tale of resurrection and transformation, men reading by the light of glowworms and foxfire, edible books, and soluble boneless fish.
The visionary language characteristic of alchemical works was fiercely criticized by Francis Bacon, who insisted that such obscure images and texts could not be understood by readers; much less, of course, could their contents be systematically tested, since no reader could know for certain which ingredients and procedures they prescribed. Newman shows that Bacon exaggerated. By painstaking and meticulous analysis he establishes the exact chemical experiments that Starkey had devised, identifying their ingredients in both seventeenth-century and modern terms. He also shows that some contemporary readers had anticipated his explications of parts of these devilishly difficult texts. The dark language of alchemy emerges as an early form of scientific notation: precise, rigorous, inaccessible to the outsider but clear to the expert. Considered simply as a piece of historical craftsmanship, Newman’s efficient decoding and partial rehabilitation of these rebarbative texts compels admiration.2
Newman has more in mind, however, than solving a large set of puzzles. He also advances a set of connected, and original, theses about the kind of science that Starkey practiced and its relation to the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Earlier treatments of alchemy have, for the most part, taken their cue from such influential practitioners of the art as the Swiss doctor Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus and the Flemish-born J. B. Van Helmont. Such men not only studied alchemy but insisted that it amounted to the core of a new science of nature and a new form of medicine. They denounced with equal zeal the established universities which depended on Aristotelian methods in natural philosophy and taught Galenic medicine. Paracelsus berated the orthodox doctors of the early sixteenth century for their dependence on books, their failure to study nature directly, and their insistence on avoiding contact with practical workers:
It is better to know and to understand one remedy than to rummage through the great libraries of the monasteries…. The physician does not learn everything he must know and master at high colleges alone; from time to time he must consult old women, gypsies, magicians, wayfarers and all manner of peasant folk…for these have more knowledge about such things than all the high colleges.
Van Helmont described, in detailed autobiographical essays that Starkey knew (and even copied out in his own hand), his deep disenchantment with the text-based education he had had at the prestigious Catholic university of Louvain: “finding that I knew nothing Sollid or true, I refused the Title of master of Arts, Being unwilling that the professors should playe the foole with mee.” Reasonably enough, most early historians of alchemy and related studies saw their proponents as forming an opposition movement, a rebellion against entrenched authority in science—a plausible assumption, given the anti-establishmentarian rhetoric that Starkey and others often used.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the occult sciences played a larger and larger role in revisionist histories of early modern science. Paolo Rossi, Frances Yates, and others demonstrated that major figures of the Scientific Revolution, from Bacon to Newton, had taken a passionate interest in natural magic, astrology, and alchemy. The conviction grew that a man like Newton, who copied out and indexed thousands of pages of alchemical texts, must also have drawn central elements of his view of the world from the radical, anti-academic tradition represented by alchemy and alchemical medicine—even though it seemed impossible to trace any connection between Newton’s visionary alchemy and his hard-edged mathematical analysis of gravity and other forces. The new history of the Scientific Revolution that emerged from such analyses was more nuanced than older ones, since it emphasized that Newton and his contemporaries did not always see the world in the black-and-white, purely quantitative forms of Newtonian physical science.
But much of this work was highly traditional in another respect. Most of the pioneers in this field insisted that existing institutions of higher learning—schools, universities, scholarly libraries—had little or nothing to do with the seventeenth century’s creation of a new understanding of nature. After all, the magicians and alchemists had denounced the arteriosclerotic conservatism of established Aristotelianism. It seemed obvious that they—and by extension, the later, greater figures who found them so fascinating—radically opposed the traditional curriculum that had confronted Starkey at Harvard. Evidence that the occult sciences had penetrated university walls—like the presence of alchemical arguments among the Latin these publicly debated at Harvard—showed only that the revolt was spreading inside, as well as outside, the old Academy.
Newman—like a number of other scholars in the last few years—directly challenges these views. Picking the components of Starkey’s alchemy apart with the delicacy and precision of a jeweler, he shows that the fundamental terms and images with which Starkey tried to describe the nature of matter and the creation of chemical compounds depended on the idea of corpuscles.3 More remarkably still, he shows that Starkey found the materials from which he created his corpuscular view of nature not only in the texts of the alchemical tradition but also in the Aristotelian science of the universities. For what Starkey studied at Harvard, as Newman shows in detail, was not the Aristotle of the Physics that modern students of ancient philosophy know, but an Aristotle reinterpreted by later readers like the swashbuckling doctor, literary critic, and confidence man Julius Caesar Scaliger and the Cambridge scholar Alexander Richardson. Starkey’s Aristotle believed, like the alchemists, that the elements consisted not just of undifferentiated matter given a particular shape by a formal cause, but of specific corpuscles that determined the properties of earth and water, fire and air, plants and minerals, as well as their capacity to be changed into one another.
The prevalence of such views within the Harvard curriculum made the study of alchemy legitimate—and reveals that Harvard students who included alchemical arguments in their these were not rebelling against authority but developing one side of what they had learned in their courses. Starkey followed the same line when he fused alchemical and Aristotelian elements in the single weird alembic of his ever-busy speculative mind. And precisely this fusion caught the eye of his most famous reader, Isaac Newton, who took from Starkey not just isolated recipes for chemical experiments, but an elaborate and highly idiosyncratic idea of what the corpuscles of matter are and look like. No wonder that Starkey, for all his sharp criticism of the Galenic medicine of the schools, refused to take the radical measure of advertising his wares: he saw himself as a high scientist, not a low radical, as much a part of the intellectual tradition as its rebellious savior.
Newman’s book does not always make easy reading. Though he sketches the life of a fascinating, forgotten character, adorning many pages with curious and vivid details that recall John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, he does not couch his results in glittering prose and sometimes, briefly, seems to lose his narrative thread. Nonetheless, Gehennical Fire deserves to reach a wide public. It helps to revise a revisionist historiography of science which has become something of an orthodoxy in its own right. A generation ago, sharp borders and bright colors located the areas of modernity and reaction on historians’ mental maps of early modern culture. Newman shows that these were derived not from the sources but from the natural desire to impose clarity and simplicity on a complex, turbid past. The boundaries between Aristotelianism and alchemy, establishment science and reform, traditional natural philosophy and the Scientific Revolution emerge from his analysis as permeable, even fluid: territories long described as separate turn out to overlap. Above all. Newman offers powerful evidence that the dark science of alchemy formed part of the high intellectual tradition in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Neither the alchemists’ alembics nor their lives will ever look quite the same.
November 16, 1995
On the continuing presence and evolution of alchemy on the Continent in this period see the elegant recent book by Pamela H. Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton University Press, 1994). ↩
On the protracted and intricate debates of the seventeenth century about chemical language, see further Jan Golinski, “Chemistry in the Scientific Revolution: Problems of Language and Communication,” Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David Lindberg and Robert Westman (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 367–396. ↩
Newman demonstrated his expert command of the literature of the alchemical tradition—and laid part of the foundation for Gehennical Fire—in his monumental first book, The Summa Perfectionis of pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation and Study (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991). ↩