Early Scientists Vindicated – Het Parool 25/10/12

The Ritman Library: ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’ exhibition. Early scientists vindicated Amsterdam boasted scores of alchemical laboratories in the 17th century. The Ritman Library is devoting an exhibition on the subject. An article by Henk Schutten | Het Parool, Thursday October 25, 2012.

A piece of potentially poisonous antimony ore, an antimony cup and an alchemical work on antimony published in 1604.

How successful they really were, the alchemists of the Dutch Republic, is still open to question. Only one of them, Johannes Fridericus Helvetius, claimed to have transmuted lead into gold. In December 1666 he allegedly received a visit in his home from a mysterious stranger, Elias Artista. The visitor handed him a fragment of the Philosopher’s Stone with which Helvetius managed to successfully carry out his experiment to the end. The stranger then disappeared, never to be heard of again.
Helvetius originally came from Switzerland and settled in the Dutch Republic because of the prevailing freedom of religion. Johann Rudolf Glauber, a German alchemist and apothecary, was also attracted to the Republic for the same reason. He owned a laboratory on Amsterdam’s Looiersgracht. Glauber, too, lived in hope of receiving a visit from the mysterious Elias Artista, who was looked upon as a divine messenger, a harbinger of a Golden Age in which the sciences would flourish. Glauber died of a professional disease, having poisoned himself in his laboratory. In his last years he was blind, paralyzed, and eventually went insane. He lies buried in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk.

“It was not uncommon in those days”, says José Bouman, curator of the Ritman library. “Poisoning was among the top lethal hazards for apothecaries, who had to work with toxic materials like mercury and sulphur.”

Nowadays alchemy is generally looked upon as a curious error of science, but for centuries it was a respected scientific discipline. Many of the discoveries made by alchemists have laid the foundation for advances made in chemistry, physics, biochemistry and pharmacology. Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, not the least among scientists, are known to have practised alchemy. Amsterdam boasted scores of alchemical laboratories in the 17th century.

“The city was a safe haven for dissidents from all nations”, says Esther Oosterwijk-Ritman, director of the BPH. “There was freedom of religion here, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

Many Amsterdam apothecaries offered medicinal remedies based on alchemical processes. These medicines were obtained via distillation, says José Bouman. The signs of these shops often showed a salamander in a fire basket. Bouman:

“Fire was of course an indispensable element. Already in Antiquity, salamanders were believed to be able to survive in the flames.”

The methods of the alchemists were by no means uncontroversial. The Amsterdam physician and alchemist Theodor Kerckring, for instance, who lived on Keizersgracht, believed that the highly toxic semimetal antimony, which is often found in combination with sulphur or mercury, provided the ultimate panacea. Antimony was used to purify gold, the most precious of metals. By analogy, according to Kerckring and many others, antimony could be administered to cure man, the most perfect of creatures, who was made in God’s image. In the 16th century the use of antimony was prohibited by the Sorbonne, but the ban had to be revoked a century later when Louis XIV was said to be miraculously cured of a dangerous fever thanks to antimony. The exhibition in the Ritman library shows a piece of antimony ore and an antimony cup. José Bouman:

“The cup is so toxic that anyone drinking wine from it today would immediately be sick.”

Kerckring, however, was convinced that antimony when applied in the proper dose was definitely not toxic but a great cure against many illnesses. In his comments he proudly proclaims that more and more apothecaries were prepared to sell chemical remedies, according to him a sure sign that the coming of Elias Artista was at hand.
His solid faith in the medicinal properties of alchemy did not harm Kerckring’s reputation as a doctor. He is still regarded as one of the greatest anatomists to have practised in the Republic. He was a friend and fellow pupil of Benedictus de Spinoza, who at one point made a microscope for Kerckring.

The exhibition in the Ritman library intends to level many prejudices against alchemy, says José Bouman. “There is much more to alchemy than turning lead into gold. Alchemy was also used to good effect by the medical profession. This exhibition aims to show that many alchemists were very practical men and were also great practitioners of the art. Since the 18th century alchemy has come to be discarded as a somewhat dark discipline, but in fact many alchemists made great advances in their chosen field and were often one step ahead of their fellow scientists. They did not only want to fathom nature but also man’s place within it. As a result, religion was an essential element in their world view.”

Alchemy on the Amstel, exhibition in the Ritman Library, curated by Cis van Heertum. Opening hours: Mondays-Fridays, 10:00-12:30 and 13:30-17:00, until 17 May 2013. www.ritmanlibrary.com.

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