University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, March 6th 2009
Speaker: John Powers, Department of History, Virginia Commonwealth University
Subject: Herman Boerhaave and the Demarcation of Chemistry from Alchemy
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

During his lifetime, Herman Boerhaave gained a reputation as a great teacher, systematizer, and promoter of empiricism in medicine and chemistry. He was also an avid practitioner of alchemy. Boerhaave's extant papers include notes from hundreds of hours of alchemical experimentation performed periodically over forty years (c. 1696-1737). Among these records are included numerous attempts to induce metallic transmutation by various means and several tries to fabricate "philosophical" mercury, a necessary step in some recipes for the Philosophers' Stone. Yet, Boerhaave was not a naive believer in the power of alchemy. What began as an interest driven by curiosity and faith became a research program for the testing of alchemical claims, culminating in a series of papers published in the Philosophical Transactions. In his "De Mercurio experimenta" (1733-6), Boerhaave praised the alchemists for their "tenacious work," condemned them for their obscurity and secrecy, and set about to scrutinize their claims "for all to see." In this talk, I will examine the origins and execution of Boerhaave's program for testing alchemical claims, especially within the context of his philosophical and pedagogical view of chemistry as a whole. I will argue that Boerhaave rejected many alchemical claims simply by treating them like any other empirical claim in his chemical system (rather then privileging their factual status by relying on witness testimony or philosophical argument). Ultimately, this paper will contribute to an understanding of the complex relationship between alchemy, chemistry, and natural philosophy in the early Eighteenth Century.

Sponsored by Program in the History of Medicine.

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