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VOLUME 33, NO. 3, MARCH, 1956

THE PILLARS OF MODERN CHEMISTRY' AARON 1. IBDE University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin


IS possible, unfortunately, to gain the impression from numerous textbooks that chemistry developed out of alchemy after certaiu alchemical beliefs had been discarded.* It is even easier to gain the impression that chemistry developed out of a vacuum, or a t most out of the stmctural atom, if one examines contemporary textbooks most of which give the student no clues regarding the origin and development of the suhje~t.~ This latter impression is particularly deplorable for it is bringing about the development of a whole generation of scientists traiued in a supposedly logical manner hut without any appreciation of where the knowledge came from or how it was worked out.

'Presented before the Division of History of Chemistry at the 128th Meeting of the American Chemioal Society, Minne2 orSeptember, example, see 1955. KING,G. B., AND W. E. CALDWELL, "Fundaapolis, mentals of College Chemistry," 2nd ed., American Book Co., "General Chemistry," New York, 1954, pp. 5 6 ;P. W. SELWOOD, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1954, p. 11; G. W. WATTAND L. F. HATCH,"The Science of Chemistry," 2nd ed., MeGrarr-Hill Book Co.. New York. 1954. DD. 4-6. A few rare'exeeotions i r e PAR& G. D.. AND J. W. MELMR. "Mellor's Modern inorganic chemistry," Green and Co., London, 1939, pp: 4-11 et passim; W. FOSTERA N D H. N. ALYEA,"An Introduct~onto General Chemistry," 3rd ed., D. Van Nostrand Co., Ino., New York, 1947, pp. 1-12; E. Rocnow AND M. K. WILSON,"General Chemistry," John Wiley & Sans, Inc., New York, 1954, pp. 549-58; W. F. LUDER,A. A. VERNOS, AND S. ZUFFANTI,"General Chemistry," W. R. Silunders Co., "Introduction Philadelphia, 1953, pp. 1G23; R. T. SANDERSON, to Chemistry," John wi'iley &- Sons, Inc., New York, 1954, P.

Kot nearly as damaging hut still serious is the opiniou that chemistry grew solely out of alchemy. This has sufficient truth in it to be e a d y acceptable to those who would not explore the problemfurther, but it is true only if a much broader interpretation than is proper is placed on the word "alchemy." A more realistic viewpoint is to recognize that chemistry has three sources, or pillars: medicine, alchemy, metallurgy. When placed on a foundation of experiment all three fields contributed materially to the supportof chemistry. I t is generally agreed that moderu chemistry began in the second half of the eighteenth century with the funda-




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mental iuvestigations of Black, Cavendish, Priestley, and Scheele, and the conceptual synthesis of Lavoisier. These developments were possible because there had accumulated by then a mass of knowledge, largely empirical, about chemical substances, operations, and apparatus which was necessary for further development. This knowledge came not from alchemy alone, but from medicine and metallurgy as well. I t may of course be argued that these two latter fields were merely branches of alchemy. This dignifies alchemy with a scope far beyond its real intent. The fact that the alchemist concerned himself with metals did not make him a metallurgist. The alchemist was concerned with the perfection of metals, the transmutation of base metals into silver and gold. The metallurgist was concerned with the production of commercial metals from ores. The alchemist was a philosopher often more concerned with his concepts than with his operations. The metallurgist was a practical man, usually unlettered, and usually unconcerned with concepts except where his superstitions influenced his thought, but much concerned with operations. He was an artisan rather than a scientist, but with an empirical knowledge of minerals and metals that put the more learned alchemist to shame. With medicine, too, it may he argued that since the alchemist concerned himself with the "elixir of life" he was a medical man and that medicine was properly a part of alchemy. Here again, alchemy is dignified with too broad a scope. The fact that physicians and apothecaries many times showed an interest in alchemy did not make medicine a branch of alchemy. Medicine had as its proper function the treatment of the sick. Search for the elusive elixir was hardly the major function of either medicine or alchemy. Furthermore, the medical interest of alchemists, in the earlier days a t least, hardly extended beyond the elixir goal. The sixteenth century, by which time alchemy had made its primary contributions to chemistry and was in a state of decline, saw medicine and metallurgy begin to contribute heavily to the field which was to become modern chemistry. This does not mean that there had not been earlier contributions; it merely means that a major flow of contributions which has never dried up first burst forth in the sixteenth century.


realized. It was only when this philosophy of matter was abandoned in favor of the fixity of elements that modern chemistry could begin. Nevertheless, the centuries of alchemical search for the philosopher's stone were not a total loss. There was built up by the alchemists a body of empirical knowledge which was essential to the development of chemistry itself. The acquired knowledge of methods was fundamental t o the rapid progress chemistry has made. Distillation, sublimation, filtration, heating, digestion, solution, precipitation, and extraction were all well developed duriug the alchemical period. Apparatus was adapted from the smithy and kitchen to chemical purposes. The modern vessels for storing. transferring, fusing, manipulating, and distilling are refined versions of the flasks, beakers, crucibles, and stills of the alchemists. Knowledge of chemicals is also to the credit of the alchemists. They passed on their "know how" for preparing numerous salts (alums, vitriols, borax, sal ammoniac, saltpeter), alkalies (lime, natron, potash, hydroxides of calcium, sodium, potassium, ammonium), acids (acetic, sulfuric, nitric, aqua regia), and alcohol. While their theoretical interpretation of their operations was often a hindrance t o chemistry their practical knowledge mas a boon.4 MEDICAL INFLUENCES

The medical background of modern chemistry is usually treated adequately by historians of chemistry under the term "iatrochemistry." There are even a few textbook writers who make a passing reference t o the iatrochemists. The chemical trend that was given to medicine by Paracelsus and his followers bas been of sufficient human interest to receive proper attention. The controversial character of Paracelsus himself, the overenthusiasm of his followers for chemical medicines, and the antagonism of traditional physicians has generally resulted in the dignifying of iatrochemistry by a chapter in the histories of chemistry. Medical interest in chemistry even antedates Paracelsus. The preparation of drugs by the distillation of all sorts of organic materials was advocated by Brunschwygk and treated at length in his books on the subject? Through the application of steam distillation it was believed that active medicinal agents could be ALCHEMICAL INF%UENCES separated from nonessentials. The subject continued Although the alchemists have been much maligned to receive the attention of medical men, the works of by the textbook writers they are not all as contemptible Ulstadt, Matthiolus, Gesner, and della Porta being as they have been painted. While some of them were particularly important.' frauds there were also some who were sincere and TAYLOR, F. S., "The Alchemists." H. Schuman, New York, scholarly. Let it not he forgotten that even today 1949, passim. science has its charlatans as well as its scholars. The BRUNSCHWYGK, H., "Liber de mte distillsndi de simplicibus lack of significant progress during the many centuries ader Buch der reehten Kunst zu Distillieren die eint~ieenDinee." that alchemy flourished was due not to the fraudulent Johmn Griininger, Stramburg, 1500. This was folloked in 1512 alchemists but t o the erroneous philosophy of matter by Brunschwygk's "Liber de arte distillsndi de eompositis." books were frequently reprinted, translated, excerpted, and which the sincere alchemists followed. Their concept Both supplemented. of the four elements and four qualities suggested the FORBES,R. J., "Short History of the Art of Distillation," perfection of metals, a goal constantly sought but never E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1948, Chap. 5.

VOLUME 33, NO. 3, MARCH, 1956


Following Paracelsus, the importance of chemistry arus Ercker,I0 chief superintendent of mines and compin preparing drugs was enthusiastically adopted by such troller of the Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Bomedical men as Toxites, Dorn, Adam of Bodenstein, hemia. Ercker's treatise was highly prized for its Suchten, and Oswald Croll. Sylvius de la Boe de- accurate representation of factual material unvarnished veloped Paracelsian medicine into a system by consider- by contemporary theoretical ideas. All of these books were sound chemical works. In ing the human body as a chemical device. Even more level-headed men such as Libavius, van Helmont, fact, they were more than metallurgical treatises. PerTachenius, and Glauber were strongly influenced to haps the term "mineralogical arts" might be more exploit the relationships between chemistry and medi- suitable since it would include within its scope the procine. The stimulus of medicine resulted in slow but duction of acids, alum, sal ammoniac, vitriols, saltpeter, steady progress in understanding the organic world. pigments, and glass. However, since many of these substances were produced and used in connection with METALLURGICAL INFLUENCES metallurgy or were discovered in connection with such Throughout history the smith has been a practical operations, it is perhaps permissible to use the term chemist but his influence was not strongly felt before metallurgy to include such fringe operations. The influence of mineralogical arts on chemistry is the sixteenth century because, being unlettered, he left no written works. By that century, however, mining seen not ouly in the works just cited but in the succesand smelting operations in Germany and Italy reached sion of such works in subsequent centuries and in the such proportions that mine supervisors and local phy- fact that mineralogical and chemical interests were often found in the same person in the eighteenth and sicians began writing about the subject. Early in the century there began to appear various nineteenth centuries. The Swedish chemists are excelanonymous "Berg-, Probier-, and Kunstbiichlein," ac- lent examples. Brandt, Cronstedt, Bergman, Scheele, tually "doit yourself" books for the artisans of that day.' Gahn, Gadolin, Hjelm, and Berzelius were all deeply The "Probierbiichlein" dealing with the assaying of interested in the chemical nature of minerals. The metals is important for the practical chemistry which Spaniards del Rio, de Ulloa, and the dlEluyar brothers had similar interests. The work of Klaproth and it contains. The first comprehensive treatise on mining and metal- Vauquelin also comes to mind. Even in America i t lurgy was that of Biringuccio, "De la pirotechnia," was customary for professors of the nineteenth century written in Italian and published posthumously in 1540.8 to combine geology and chemistry, e. g., Robert Hare, The work was the result of the author's experience as a Thomas Cooper, the two Benjamin Sillimans, Amos supervisor of mines and smelting in Italy. It shows a Eaton, and Charles Frederick Chandler. Siegfried, in maturity and organization notably dissimilar from the his recent study of early chemical investigation in disordered "Biichlein." Its usefulness is attested by America," bears out the importance of mineralogical the publication of nine editions before the end of the chemistry. I n his analysis of 2080 chemical papers published by Americans up to 1880 he found that 442, seventeenth century. Despite its quality, Biringuccio's treatise never or 21.2 per cent, had a mineralogical content. If one achieved the fame of Agricola's "De re metallica," pub- considers only papers published up to 1855, after which lished posthumously in 1556.9 Agricola, born Georg organic studies became numerous, mineralogical chemBauer, spent his lifetime as a physician among the istry accounts for 32 per cent of the papers, or 192 of a miners of Saxony and Bohemia where he became so total of 601. familiar with geology, mining, and metallurgy that beDespite the importance of the mineralogical arts to tween 1530 and the time of his death in 1555 he had the development of chemistry, they rarely receive the written several Latin works on these subjects. One attention they deserve. The popular histories of such work was "De re metallica" which was beautifully chemistry seldom make more than passing reference to printed in folio by Froben of Basel and illustrated with the metallurgical writers of the sixteenth century and 271 well-executed woodcuts of mining, smelting, and generally do so in the chapter on iatrochemistry! This chemical operations. is the case with Partincrton.'* Hilditch.14HolmStill another work worthy of mention is that of Laz-

'0 ERCKER, L., "Beschreibung Allerfiirnemisten Minerdischen DARMST~DTER, E., "Berg-, Probier-, and Kunstbiicblein," Ertzt und Bergwerob arten," Georgen Schwartz, Prague, 1574. Miinchner Drucke, Munich, 1922; A. Slsco, Isis, 43, 337 (1952). An English translation has been made by A. G. Slsco AND C. S. An Englkh translstion has been prepared by A. S ~ s c oA N D C. S. S ~ T H "Lazarus , Ercker's Treatise on Ores and Assaying," S ~ T R"Bergwerk, und Probierbiichlein," American Institute University of Chicago Press, Chioago, 1951. R., "A study of chemical research publications SIEGFRIED, of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, New York, 1949. An English translation was prepared by SMITH, CYRILS., from the United States before 1880: Ph.D. Thesis, University AND MARTHA GUNDI,"The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringucoio," of Wisconsin, 1952, pp. 48,85. '2 PARTINGTON, J. R.,"A Short History of Chemistry," 2nd American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, New York, 1942. ed., Meemillan and Co., London, 1948, p. 55. *An English translation was prepared by HOOVER, HERBERT '3 MOORE, F. J., AND W. T. HALL,"A History of Chemistry," C., AND Lou HENRYHOOTER,"Georgiu~Agricola de re metal- 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1939, pp. 35-6. " HILDITC~, T. P., "A Concise History of Chemistry," 2nd h a , " The Mining Magazine, London, 1912; reprinted by Dover ed., Methuen and Co., London, 1922, pp. 70, 131, 164. Press, New York, 1950.




yard,l5 Venable," and Fiertz-David." Each of these authors spends little more than a paragraph on Agricola, treating him along with the medical writers. Though Agricola was a physician he has no importance whatever as an iatrochemist, and treating him as an afterthought along with such medical figures as Paracelsus, Libavius, Van Helmont, and Glauber distorts his real importance in the development of chemistry. FarberlS handles the period much more realistically, giving attention not only to Agricola but to Biringuccio. Leicester and Klicksteinl* have also included selections from both of these writers in their source book. Brownzo devotes a short chapter to the metallurgists. StillmanZ1 treats them adequately though mixing them indiscriminately with the iatrochemists. Von MeyerZ2gives them only passing reference. Even the exhaustive

" HOLMYARD, E. J., "Makers of Chemistry," Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1931 ; mentions none of the metallurgical writers. "VENABLE,F. P., "Hi~toryof Chemistry," Heath and Co., Boston, 1922, p. 27. I' FIERTZ-DAVID, H. E., "Die Entwi~klunp8ge~chichte der Chemie," 2nd ed., Verlsg Birkhauser, Basel, 1952, pp. 114-7. FARBER,E., "The Evolution of Chemistry," Ronald Press, New York, 1952, pp. 49,55,60,80. " LEICESTER,H., A N D H. KLICKSTEIN,"A Source Book in Chemistry," MoGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., New York, 1952, pp. "-3

c *".

'O BROWN, J. C., "A History of Chemistry," J. and A. Churchill, London. 1913. no. 2154. STTILMAN;~. M., "The Story of Early Chemistry," D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1924, pp. 32846. '2 METER,E. YON, "A History of Chemistry,'' translated from the German by G. M'Gow~x,Macmillan and Ca., London, 1891, pp. 84-5

Kopp treats the time as the period of medical chemistry, sandwiching Agricola between Paracelsus and ThurnheysserZ3while making only the barest reference t o BiringuccioZ4and never mentioning the "Probierhuchlein" or Ercker. Only H ~ e f e r of , ~the ~ early or recent historians, placed proper emphasis on the activities of the metallurgists. He, too, fails to mention the "Probierbiichlein" or Ercker though he gives metallurgical chemistry a chapter along with chapters on iatrochemistry, technological chemistry, and alchemy when treating the sixteenth century. In concluding, one cannot help but agree with Cyril S. Smith who recently wrote:zB Anyone who studies the mitinge of Ercker and the other assayers comes to feel that their importance has not been sufficiently stressed by historians of chemistry. The asseyer deserves as much credit as the observrttionsl astronomer for providing numerical data and establishing the tradition of accurate measurement without which modern science could not have arisen. Though more of a craftsman than scientist and more concerned with utility than with intellectual beeuty, the sssayer nevertheless collected a large portion of the data on which chemical ~ciencewas founded.

It would appear that metallurgy, beside alchemy and medicine, is truly a pillar of modern chemistry, albeit a most neglected one. "KOPP, H., "Geschiehte der Chemie," F. Vioweg, Braunschweig, 184347, Val. 1 of 4 vals., pp. 104-7, el passim. " Ibid.,Vol. 3, p. 221. 'HOEFER,F., "Hi~toirede Is. chimie," 2nd ed., Didot Freres, Paris, 1869, Vol. 2 of 2 vols., pp. 38-66, 'An English translation of ERCKER,op. Cit., by SISCOA N D

MORE MNEMONICS For Remembering the Activity Series of the Melab: "Kentuckians never can manage alcohol magnanimously, zeolots claim. Firewater nightly stirs pugnacious humans, cancels bonds of sanctity, hideously agitating potential anarchy." The first letter of each word is the initial letter in the symbol of the elements as they ordinarily occur in the activity table (see, for example, EHRET,W. F., "Smith College Chemistry," 6th ed., D. Appleton-Century Co., New York, 1946, p. 75): potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, manganese, zinc, chromium, iron, nickel, tin, lead, hydrogen, copper, bismuth, antimony, mercury, silver, platinum, and gold. For Remembering the Lanthanum Series, w Rare Earth Elements: "Ladies can't put nickels properly in slobmachines. Every girl tries daily, however, every time you look," gives the first letters of lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium. (Acknowledgment for thia mnemonic goes to Dr. Scheldelin of Oregon State College.) LOUIS W. CLARK SAINTJ O ~ ~ PCOLLE.. H