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Alchemy, The Great Work now on view

Exhibit illustrates alchemy’s influence on pharmacology and medicine and highlights Library’s rare book collections

By Megan Keller Young

Little is known about early alchemy but it is thought to have emerged sometime prior to the 4th millennium BC. Though alchemy is often considered part of mysticism and the occult, that is not the whole story. The roots of alchemy are linked to mysticism, but alchemists’ observations and experiments during the Renaissance provided a basis for valid scientific experiments and significantly influenced pharmacology and medicine. This influence is displayed in “Alchemy, The Great Work,” an exhibit comprised entirely from holdings dating from ca. 1600-1900 from Special Collections and University Archives at the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago.

Many alchemists during the Renaissance were also physicians and believed that nature contained many substances and objects with useful medicinal qualities and properties. Experiments on the impact of herbs and metals on the body were guided by the idea that biological processes like digestion and circulation echoed the movement of the planets. Alchemists saw the forces of nature as equal to the forces of the human body, and believed these forces could be understood chemically. Portions of plants, animals and minerals could be used to create medicines by the discerning alchemist who was guided by nature, not ancient texts.

Alchemists pioneered distillation techniques to create medicines from mineral substances and plants. Many hypothesized that different diseases, despite presenting similar symptoms, required different treatments. Additionally, some alchemists theorized that contagions in the air could cause disease and that herbal and mineral mixtures can be poisonous or curative depending on the dosage. These ideas and technologies were fundamental to the development of modern pharmacology.

Other scientific developments grew out of alchemists’ experiments and observations. Alchemists seeing plants benefit from light and water came to a general understanding that chlorophyll reacted with “something in the air.” Jan Baptista van Helmont discovered what came to be called carbon dioxide in about 1640 while burning charcoal to test its properties. The alchemists’ findings came to serve as practical examples in many fields, including chemistry, botany, pharmacology and biology. Through this collected knowledge, alchemy has profoundly impacted science. The cryptic language alchemists often used was eventually edited out of the resulting pharmacologies, material medicas and herbals.

Alchemists are famous for allegedly being able to create gold. Many alchemists constantly searched for a substance, most commonly known as the “Philosopher’s Stone,” capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. The Philosopher’s Stone was never found, and no claims were ever proven. Attempts to create gold were largely abandoned by the seventeenth century.

Viewers of “Alchemy, The Great Work” will gain a general overview of alchemy and learn about selected famous alchemists and the impact of alchemy on medicine, specifically pharmacology. The oldest book in the exhibit is Ioyfull Newes Out of the New-Found Worlde, printed in 1596. Other notable texts include Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician and Complete Herbal (1790), The Art of Distillation: Or, a Treatise of the Choisest Spagyricall Preparations, Experiments and Curiosities Performed by Way of Distillation (1664), and Ortus Medicinae (1667) by Jan Baptista van Helmont. Two handwritten dispensatories by Edward Stuchlik, a 1904 College of Pharmacy graduate, are also on display. The exhibit consists mainly of rare books, but some illustrations and pharmacology tools are included. Herbals and pharmacopoeias are two strengths of Special Collections’ rare book collection. Displaying these texts within the context of the alchemy exhibit allows medical historians and others to appreciate their impact on modern pharmacology and medicine.

“Alchemy, The Great Work” is on display at the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors and is open to the public during regular library hours through Dec. 2020. For more information, contact Special Collections and University Archives at (312) 996-8977.

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