In Elements of Murder: The History of Poison science writer John Emsley tells the story of how humans have used chemicals to both help and harm one another throughout history, and the chemistry behind it all. Hundreds of years ago alchemists tried in vain to concoct potent elixirs for wealth and vitality, these experiments failed. Emsley solves and shares the mysteries that previous generations of scientists struggled to understand in Elements of Murder. Below we have excerpted the tale of “The First Chemist,” who also, incidentally, was an alchemist.
The First Chemist
Today Robert Boyle is regarded as one of the founding fathers of chemistry. He was the brother of Lady Ranelagh and he lived at her London home, Ranelagh House, which was situated in the fashionable St James’s district.
Robert Boyle was a complex character. He was a life-long bachelor, a staunch Christian, a giver to charity on a large scale, a scholar, a world-renowned scientist – and an alchemist. Despite his ground-breaking work on the study of gases that led to Boyle’s law, which relates volume to pressure, he spent a great deal of his life searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. He too was conned out of a great deal of money by a Frenchman, George Pierre des Clozets, who promised to reveal the recipe for making gold and admit him to a secret society of true alchemists. Boyle fell for the scam and paid dearly for it.
The fact that Boyle had been an alchemist for most of his life was to prove an embarrassment to the scientific establishment in later years because of the need to present him as the first true chemist. His book The Sceptical Chymist is today regarded as the seminal work that severed the link between chemistry and alchemy but is not just an attack on alchemy. Indeed among Boyle’s papers when he died there was one he had partly written called Dialogue on Transmutation and Melioration of Metals in which he described a well documented transformation of base metal into gold performed by a Fench alchemist, and which he said had been witnessed by several eminent people.
Boyle believed his search for the Philosopher’s Stone was justified because it would not only transmute metals but would be an ‘incomparable’ medicine. Boyle himself published a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions of 21 February 1676 entitled ‘On the Incascence of Quicksilver with Gold’. This reports a ‘mercury’ which, when mixed with gold, causes it to react and evolve heat. Lord Brouncker, President of the Royal Society, attested to the efficacy of Boyle’s new ‘mercury’ in that when it was mixed with gold powder on the palm of his hand, he felt the heat it generated.
In another of his publications, Producibleness of Chymical Principles, Boyle reports on a ‘mercury’ that could dissolve gold instantly but refuses to reveal its nature because he feels it would ‘disorder the affairs of mankind, favour tyranny and bring a general confusion, turning the world topsy-turvy’.
We can only guess what this ‘mercury’ was but it was probably an antimony–copper–mercury amalgam. Boyle’s instructions for making it, though, were written in alchemical language:
Take pure Negerus, Dakilla, imbrionated banasis ana, mix them very well together & drive off all that you can in a retort with a strong fire of sand. It dissolves gold readily and that with sensible heat.
Negerus was mercury, Dakilla was copper, and imbrionated banasis was antimony. The danger inherent in carrying out such an experiment was breathing the mercury vapour that would be given off during the experiment, and indeed Boyle’s regular exposure to mercury might well explain his chronic sickness. Undoubtedly Boyle was exposed to mercury fumes but there is no evidence that he was disabled by them and indeed most of his experiments were performed by an apprentice. He had taken up residence at Ranelagh House in 1671 and lived there until his death in 1691. In 1676 he persuaded his sister to allow him to build a laboratory in the garden and then to enlarge it in 1677. It was equipped with a furnace, retorts, flasks, and other alchemical apparatus together with a range of simple chemicals. It was there that he carried out a series of experiments that revealed him to be a true chemist rather than an alchemist.
In 1669 Hennig Brandt, an alchemist of Hamburg, discovered phosphorus, which he believed would lead him to the Philosopher’s Stone on account of its almost miraculous ability to shine in the dark and spontaneously burst into flames. He sold some of this to a Daniel Kraft who demonstrated it around the courts of Europe; Kraft eventually arrived in London in 1671, where he even put on a private demonstration for Boyle at Ranelagh House, to which other members of the Royal Society were invited. Boyle was duly impressed and asked how it was made, only to be told that it was derived from ‘something that came from the body of man’. Boyle deduced, rightly, that this was urine, but he could not extract phosphorus from it no matter how he tried until his apprentice, Ambrose Godfrey, went to Hamburg and met Brandt who told him that it required high temperatures.
In fact phosphorus was obtained by heating to red heat the residues from boiled-down urine, and in this way Boyle obtained what he desired. What he did next distinguished him as a true chemist: he researched the properties of phosphorus and its reactions with other materials and published his findings not in the secret language of the alchemists but in plain English, and in a manner that would allow even a modern chemist to repeat what he had done. Whether they would want to repeat his observation that ‘if the privy parts be rubb’d [with phosphorus] they will be inflamed for a good while after’, is doubtful.
Phosphorus came too late in the age of alchemy to have much impact. It was neither the Philosopher’s Stone nor the Elixir of Life although others assumed it might well be and experimented accordingly. It was not recognized to be a chemical element for another century. Indeed there were only a few elements as we know them which they used in alchemical recipes, and these were mercury, arsenic, and antimony. Of these, mercury was the material that forever tantalized, promising so much and yet delivering so little, and all the while it may have been affecting health and mental stability. It is worth examining this remarkable liquid a little more closely before looking at two men whom it seriously affected.