Newton's alchemist

Gehennical Fire
June 30, 1995

Benjamin Franklin is usually given pride of place as the first American scientist. William R. Newman now advances the claim for another American, a century before Franklin: George Starkey (1628-65). Yet Starkey rates no mention in the Dictionary of American Biography. Why not?

The reason is that Starkey's numerous works were published not under his own name but under hat of his alter ego, Eirenaeus Philalethes. They went through many editions in Latin, and were translated into vernacular languages. Robert Boyle commented on them. Leibniz and G. F. Stahl knew them. So did Newton, and Newman contends that they crucially influenced Newton's chemical ideas. All assumed that they were written by a New England adept, claiming to possess the greatest alchemical secrets, and known to but not identical with George Starkey.

Starkey was the son of a Scottish minister who had migrated to Bermuda. Educated at the newly-established Harvard College in Massachusetts, he became a member of the alchemical circle around Governor John Winthrop Junior, and practised successfully as a physician soon after graduating. He chose to emigrate to England in 1650 during the disturbed decade that followed the civil war, entered the Hartlib circle and impressed them by his theoretical knowledge and laboratory skills, initiating Boyle into chemistry. The Hartlib circle combined chiliasm and utilitarianism, and planned fundamental reforms in learning and society; it saw recent events in England as part of the drama of the last days of the old world and the birth of a new one, as foreshadowed in scriptural prophecy.

Alchemy occupied a privileged place in the group's concerns, because the members expected the imminent advent of Elias the Artist, who would bring with him the Philosopher's Stone that would convert base metals into gold and cure all disease. In a famous work which circulated under the name of Philalethes, Starkey wrote: "Let my book be a precursor to Elias, who will prepare the royal way of the Lord." Involved in a multitude of schemes for improving dyeing and brewing and mineral technology, producing aromatic oils and perfumes, and searching for a process which would "augment saltpetre" needed for munitions and for use as a fertiliser, Starkey eventually came to financial grief and was twice detained in a debtor's prison.

As the Restoration drew near, he made his peace with the new establishment. Further works by Philalethes continued to issue from the presses, while Starkey returned to medical practice. He met his end in London during the Plague of 1665, staying on to minister to patients until (as a colleague wrote) "forced to yield himself prisoner unto this insolent Conqueror".

Why did Starkey's pseudonymous work draw the attention of famous contemporaries like Boyle, Leibniz and Newton, and keet his fame alive into the next century? In explaining the attraction, Newman challenges two assumptions. The first is that modern science began by replacing peripatetic matter theory by a corpuscular model with which it had nothing in common. The second is that alchemy was little more than a theory of metals aiming at transmutation, and was not an alternative theory of matter. Although pioneers of modern science like Boyle and Newton took an interest in alchemy, this, according to the modern assumption, was only because the alchemists had amassed a great deal of useful information on metals and minerals. They brought to alchemy a novel quantitative precision and substituted rational for "animistic" explanations.

Newman, however, shows that mediaeval alchemy made extensive use of a tradition, stemming from Aristotle, which explained changes in matter as depending ultimately on the smallest parts of substances, or minima naturalia. Weight, specific gravity, and other characteristics of metals were referred to particle size and interstitial pores, in a programme of corpuscular reworking constituting a veritable revolution in alchemy.

A second revolution followed with Paracelsus in the 16th century, eventually resulting in J. B. Helmont's shell theory of metals and minerals in the middle of the next century. Although Helmont is often mentioned in chemistry texts for his use of the balance and quantification in chemistry (as exemplified by his famous willow-tree experiment), his mystical-alchemical side has tended to be ignored. Newman draws attention to it, as also to the corpuscular model Helmont used. He contends that it deeply influenced Newton - but only through an intermediary, the American "cosmopolite" he knew as Philalethes. Newton's affinity theory, his model of a layered complex corpuscle, and his experiments (already decoded by B. J. Dobbs), to draw down the alchemical "spirit" with the star-regulus of antimony, all drew heavily on the works of Philalethes.

In reconstructing the history of alchemical doctrines, Newman ranges over a long period, from the medieval one of his earlier researches to the early modern one, and specialists may cavil at various details of his interpretation. But his work shows how much the field has advanced since Herbert Butterfield's famous description of historians of alchemy as "fabulous creatures", liable to be infected by the very lunacies they set out to describe. In placing the work of Philalethes in the perspective of the long history of alchemy, Newman has pinpointed in an original and challenging way continuities and discontinuities as the late medieval tradition was assimilated and re-adapted in the early modern period, and his work has larger bearings on our understanding of the early modern "Scientific Revolution".

P. M. Rattansi is professor of the history and philosophy of science, University College, London.

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

Author - William R. Newman
ISBN - 0 674 34171 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £39.95
Pages - 348

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments