the 11th century, defines chemistry as the “preparation of silver and gold” (see Alchemy).
From the Alexandrians the science passed to the Arabs, who made discoveries and improved various methods of separating substances, and afterwards, from the 11th century, became seated in Europe, where the alchemical doctrines were assiduously studied until the 15th and 16th centuries. It is readily understood why men imbued with the authority of tradition should prosecute the search for a substance which would confer unlimited wealth upon the fortunate discoverer. Some alchemists honestly laboured to effect the transmutation and to discover the “philosopher’s stone,” and in many cases believed that they had achieved success, if we may rely upon writings assigned to them. The period, however, is one of literary forgeries; most of the MSS. are of uncertain date and authorship, and moreover are often so vague and mystical that they are of doubtful scientific value, beyond reflecting the tendencies of the age. The retaining of alchemists at various courts shows the high opinion which the doctrines had gained. It is really not extraordinary that Isaac Hollandus was able to indicate the method of the preparation of the “philosopher’s stone” from “adamic” or “virgin” earth, and its action when medicinally employed; that in the writings assigned to Roger Bacon, Raimon Lull, Basil Valentine and others are to be found the exact quantities of it to be used in transmutation; and that George Ripley, in the 15th century, had grounds for regarding its action as similar to that of a ferment.
In the view of some alchemists, the ultimate principles of matter were Aristotle’s four elements; the proximate constituents were a “sulphur” and a “mercury,” the father and mother of the metals; gold was supposed to have attained to the perfection of its nature by passing in succession through the forms of lead, brass and silver; gold and silver were held to contain very pure red sulphur and white quicksilver, whereas in the other metals these materials were coarser and of a different colour. From an analogy instituted between the healthy human being and gold, the most perfect of the metals, silver, mercury, copper, iron, lead and tin, were regarded in the light of lepers that required to be healed.
Notwithstanding the false idea which prompted the researches of the alchemists, many advances were made in descriptive chemistry, the metals and their salts receiving much attention, and several of our important acids being discovered. Towards the 16th century the failure of the alchemists to achieve theirIatro-
chemistry. cherished purpose, and the general increase of medical knowledge, caused attention to be given to the utilization of chemical preparations as medicines. As early as the 15th century the alchemist Basil Valentine had suggested this application, but the great exponent of this doctrine was Paracelsus, who set up a new definition: “The true use of chemistry is not to make gold but to prepare medicines.” This relation of chemistry to medicine prevailed until the 17th century, and what in the history of chemistry is termed the iatrochemical period (see Medicine) was mainly fruitful in increasing the knowledge of compounds; the contributions to chemical theory are of little value, the most important controversies ranging over the nature of the “elements,” which were generally akin to those of Aristotle, modified so as to be more in accord with current observations. At the same time, however, there were many who, opposed to the Paracelsian definition of chemistry, still laboured at the problem of the alchemists, while others gave much attention to the chemical industries. Metallurgical operations, such as smelting, roasting and refining, were scientifically investigated, and in some degree explained, by Georg Agricola and Carlo Biringuiccio; ceramics was studied by Bernard Palissy, who is also to be remembered as an early worker in agricultural chemistry, having made experiments on the effect of manures on soils and crops; while general technical chemistry was enriched by Johann Rudolf Glauber.
The second half of the 17th century witnessed remarkable transitions and developments in all branches of natural science, and the facts accumulated by preceding generations during their generally unordered researches were replaced by a co-ordination of experiment and deduction. From the mazy and Boyle.incoherent alchemical and iatrochemical doctrines, the former based on false conceptions of matter, the latter on erroneous views of life processes and physiology, a new science arose—the study of the composition of substances. The formulation of this definition of chemistry was due to Robert Boyle. In his Sceptical Chemist (1662) he freely criticized the prevailing scientific views and methods, with the object of showing that true knowledge could only be gained by the logical application of the principles of experiment and deduction. Boyle’s masterly exposition of this method is his most important contribution to scientific progress. At the same time he clarified the conception of elements and compounds, rejecting the older notions, the four elements of the “vulgar Peripateticks” and the three principles of the “vulgar Stagyrists,” and defining an element as a substance incapable of decomposition, and a compound as composed of two or more elements. He explained chemical combination on the hypotheses that matter consisted of minute corpuscles, that by the coalescence of corpuscles of different substances distinctly new corpuscles of a compound were formed, and that each corpuscle had a certain affinity for other corpuscles.
Although Boyle practised the methods which he expounded, he was unable to gain general acceptance of his doctrine of elements; and, strangely enough, the theory which next dominated chemical thought was an alchemical invention, and lacked the lucidity and perspicuity of Boyle’s views.Phlogistic theory. This theory, named the phlogistic theory, was primarily based upon certain experiments on combustion and calcination, and in effect reduced the number of the alchemical principles, while setting up a new one, a principle of combustibility, named phlogiston (from φλογιστός, burnt). Much discussion had centred about fire or the “igneous principle.” On the one hand, it had been held that when a substance was burned or calcined, it combined with an “air”; on the other hand, the operation was supposed to be attended by the destruction or loss of the igneous principle. Georg Ernst Stahl, following in some measure the views held by Johann Joachim Becher, as, for instance, that all combustibles contain a “sulphur” (which notion is itself of older date than Becher’s terra pinguis), regarded all substances as capable of resolution into two components, the inflammable principle phlogiston, and another element—“water,” “acid” or “earth.” The violence or completeness of combustion was proportional to the amount of phlogiston present. Combustion meant the liberation of phlogiston. Metals on calcination gave calces from which the metals could be recovered by adding phlogiston, and experiment showed that this could generally be effected by the action of coal or carbon, which was therefore regarded as practically pure phlogiston; the other constituent being regarded as an acid. At the hands of Stahl and his school, the phlogistic theory, by exhibiting a fundamental similarity between all processes of combustion and by its remarkable flexibility, came to be a general theory of chemical action. The objections of the antiphlogistonists, such as the fact that calces weigh more than the original metals instead of less as the theory suggests, were answered by postulating that phlogiston was a principle of levity, or even completely ignored as an accident, the change of qualities being regarded as the only matter of importance. It is remarkable that this theory should have gained the esteem of the notable chemists who flourished in the 18th century. Henry Cavendish, a careful and accurate experimenter, was a phlogistonist, as were J. Black, K. W. Scheele, A. S. Marggraf, J. Priestley and many others who might be mentioned.
- The more notable chemists of this period were Turquet de Mayerne (1573–1665), a physician of Paris, who rejected the Galenian doctrines and accepted the exaggerations of Paracelsus; Andreas Libavius (d. 1616), chiefly famous for his Opera Omnia Medicochymica (1595); Jean Baptiste van Helmont (1577–1644), celebrated for his researches on gases; F. de la Boë Sylvius (1614–1672), who regarded medicine as applied chemistry; and Otto Tachenius, who elucidated the nature of salts.