Searching for the Philosopher’s Stone

A Little History Of Science: Searching for the Philosopher’s Stone

If you could turn your aluminium Coca-Cola can into gold, would you? You probably would, but if everybody could do it, it wouldn’t be quite so amazing, since gold would become common and not worth much. The old Greek myth of King Midas, who was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, reminds us that he wasn’t being very clever. He couldn’t even eat his breakfast, since his bread became gold as soon as he touched it! King Midas was not alone in thinking that gold is special.

Humans have always valued it, partly because of its wonderful feel and colour, partly because it is scarce, and only kings and other rich people possessed it. If you could discover how to make gold from more common substances – from iron or lead, for instance, or even from silver – your fame and fortune would be sealed.

Making gold in this way was one of the aims of a kind of early science called alchemy. Drop the ‘al’ from alchemy and you get a version of ‘chemistry’, and in fact the two are related, although these days we wouldn’t call alchemy – with its dark connections to magic and religious belief – a science. However, in the past it was a thoroughly respectable activity. In his spare time, Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy, buying a lot of scales, strangely shaped glassware, and other equipment. In other words, he set up a chemistry laboratory.

You might have been in a laboratory, or at least seen them in pictures or films; the name simply means places where you ‘labour’, or work. Long ago, laboratories were where alchemists worked.

Alchemy has a long history, stretching back to ancient Egypt, China and Persia. The aim of alchemists was not always simply to change less valuable (‘base’) metals into gold: it was also to exert power over nature, to be able to control the things that surround us. Alchemy often involved the use of magic: saying spells, or making sure you did things in exactly the correct order. The alchemist experimented with substances, to see what happened when two were mixed together, or heated. Alchemists liked to work with things that had violent reactions, like phosphorous or mercury. It could be dangerous, but imagine the rewards if you managed to find just the right combination of ingredients to make the ‘philosopher’s stone’. This ‘stone’ (it would actually be some kind of special chemical) would then turn lead or tin into gold, or help you live forever. Just like in Harry Potter.

Harry Potter’s adventures are fun, but they take place in a world of the imagination. The kinds of powers that the real magicians and alchemists dreamed of are not available in ordinary life either – even the life of the alchemist, and a lot of alchemists were tricksters, pretending to do things that they could not. But many others were honest workers who lived in a world in which everything seemed possible. In the course of their studies, they found out a lot about what we now call chemistry. They learned about distillation, for instance, the art of heating a mixture and collecting the substances that the mixture leaves behind at different times. Strong alcoholic drinks like brandy and gin are produced by distillation, which concentrates the alcohol. We call them ‘spirits’, a word we also use for ghosts, and for ourselves when we are being lively, or ‘spirited’. It’s a word that comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’. It also comes in part from alchemy.

Most people used to believe in magic (and some still do). Many famous scholars in the past also used their studies of the secrets of nature to uncover magical forces. One remarkable man thought he had the power to change the whole practice of science and medicine. His full name is a mouthful: Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Try saying that name fast, and you might understand why he would want to change it to the one we know him by: Paracelsus.

Paracelsus (c. 1493–1541) was born in Einsiedeln, a small town in the Swiss mountains. His father was a doctor and taught him about the natural world, about mining, and minerals, botany and medicine. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, but he grew up in the days of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and he had many Protestant friends and supporters, as well as Roman Catholic ones. He also made many enemies. He studied with several important churchmen, and although Paracelsus was always deeply religious, his faith, like everything else about him, was unique: it was based on chemistry.

Paracelsus studied medicine in Italy, and was always restless, moving from place to place. He travelled all over Europe, perhaps went to England, and was certainly in North Africa. He worked as a surgeon and an ordinary doctor, treated many rich and powerful patients, and seems to have been successful. However, he never looked as if he had any money and was always badly dressed. He liked to drink in bars or pubs with ordinary rather than posh people, and his enemies said he was addicted to alcohol.

Paracelsus had only one formal job, at the university in Basel, in his native Switzerland. He insisted on lecturing in German, instead of Latin, as all the other professors did, and one of the first things he did was to burn the works of Galen in the marketplace. He had no need for Galen, Hippocrates or Aristotle. He wanted to start over again. He was sure that his view of the universe was the correct one, and it was unlike any that had gone before.

Shortly after his bonfire, he was forced to leave town to continue his wanderings, staying a few months here, perhaps a year or so there, but always restless and ready to pack his few things and try somewhere else. He would take his manuscripts and chemical apparatus, and probably little else. Travel was always slow, on foot, on horseback or in a cart, along roads that were often muddy and dangerous. Given his way of life, it is amazing that he accomplished anything at all. In fact, while treating many patients, he also wrote many books, looked at the world around him, and was always doing chemical experiments.

Chemistry was his passion. When he said he didn’t need the works of the ancients to guide his own studies, he meant it. He had no time for the four elements of air, earth, fire and water. Instead, for him, there were three basic ‘principles’ – salt, sulphur and mercury – into which everything could ultimately be separated.

Salt gives things their shape, or solidness; sulphur is the reason why things can burn; and mercury is responsible for a thing’s smoky or fluid state. Paracelsus interpreted the experiments in his laboratory by these three principles. He was interested in how acids can dissolve things, and how alcohol can be frozen. He burned substances and carefully examined what was left. He distilled many liquids and collected what was given off, as well as noting what was left behind. In short, he spent a lot of time in his laboratory, seeking to master nature.

Paracelsus believed that his chemical experiments would help him understand how the world works, and that chemistry would be the source of many new treatments for disease. Before him, most drugs that doctors used came from plants, and although Paracelsus sometimes used herbal remedies in his own medical practice, he preferred to give his patients medicines that he had studied in his laboratory. Mercury was a particular favourite of his.

Mercury is actually very poisonous, but Paracelsus used it as an ointment for skin diseases, and believed it was the best remedy for a disease that had become common throughout Europe. This was syphilis, a disease that is usually spread by sexual contact, which causes horrible rashes on the skin, destroys people’s noses, and usually kills them. An epidemic of syphilis broke out in Italy in the 1490s, around the time of Paracelsus’s birth, killing many people.

By the time he was a doctor, syphilis was so widespread that almost all doctors would have seen patients with it (and more than a few doctors suffered from it themselves). Paracelsus wrote on this new disease, describing many of its symptoms and recommending mercury to treat it. Although mercury could make your teeth fall out and your breath smell horribly, it got rid of the rash, so doctors used it for many years to treat syphilis and other diseases that caused rashes.

Paracelsus described many other diseases. He wrote about the injuries and illnesses suffered by those who worked down the mines, especially diseases of the lungs caused by horrible working conditions and long hours. Paracelsus’s concern for lowly miners reflected his life spent among the ordinary people.

Hippocrates, Galen and other doctors before Paracelsus thought disease was the result of an imbalance within the body. For Paracelsus, however, disease resulted from a force that was outside the body. This ‘thing’ (he called it an ens, a Latin word which means a ‘being’ or ‘substance’) attacks the body, causes us to fall sick, and creates the kind of changes that doctors look for as clues to under- stand what the disease is. The ens could be a pimple or abscess, or a stone in the kidney. The important breakthrough that Paracelsus made was separating the patient and the disease. This way of thinking came into its own much later with the discovery of germs.

Paracelsus wanted to start science and medicine on the new foundations he provided. He said again and again that people ought not to read books but to see and experiment for themselves.

He did, of course, want others to read the books he himself wrote, some of which were not published until after he died. His real message was ‘Don’t bother to read Galen, read Paracelsus.’ His world was full of magical forces, which he believed he could under- stand and tame in the service of his science and medicine. His own alchemical dream was not just turning base metals into gold; rather, he sought to master all the magical and mysterious forces of nature.

He had a few followers during his lifetime, and many more after his death. They called themselves Paracelsians and continued to try to change medicine and science as he had done. They experimented in the laboratory and used chemical remedies in their medical practices. They tried, like Paracelsus, to control the forces of nature through natural magic.

The Paracelsians always remained outside the mainstream. The majority of doctors and scientists were unwilling to totally reject the legacy of the Ancients. Nevertheless, Paracelsus’s message was increasingly picked up. People started looking at the world for themselves. In 1543, two years after his death, two books were published, one on anatomy, one on astronomy, which also challenged the authority of the Ancients. The universe was being looked at anew.