What actually took place in the private laboratory of a mid-17th-century alchemist? How did he direct his quest for the secrets of Nature? What instruments and theoretical principles did he employ? Using as their guide the previously misunderstood interactions between Robert Boyle, widely known as "the father of chemistry", and George Starkey, an alchemist and the most prominent American scientist before Benjamin Franklin, William Newman and Lawrence Principe reveal the hitherto hidden laboratory operations of a famous alchemist and argue that many of the principles and practices characteristic of modern chemistry derive from alchemy. By analyzing Starkey's extraordinary laboratory notebooks, the authors show how this American "chymist" translated the wildly figurative writings of traditional alchemy into quantitative, carefully reasoned laboratory practice - and then encoded his own work in allegorical, secretive treatises under the name of Eirebaeus Philalethes. The intriguing "mystic" Joan Baptista Van Helmont - a favourite of Starkey, Boyle and even of Lavoisier - emerges from this study as a surprisingly central figure in 17th-century "chymistry".
A common emphasis on quantification, material production and analysis/synthesis, the authors argue, illustrates a continuity of goals and practices from late mediaevel alchemy down to and beyond the Chemical Revolution. For anyone who wants to understand how alchemy was actually practiced during the Scientific Revolution and what it contributed to the development of modern chemistry, "Alchemy Tried in the Fire" should be a veritable philosopher's stone.
William R. Newman is professor of history and philosophy of science at Indiana University. He is the author of The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber and Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution. Lawrence M. Principe is associate professor of the history of science, medicine, and technology and of chemistry at The Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest and coeditor of The Correspondence of Robert Boyle.