6th March 1875. End of European Alchemy?
The ‘white devil’[mercury] as Jacobean writer, John Webster says: ‘Hang him; a gilder that hath his brains perished with quicksilver is not more cold in the liver’.
It wasn’t just gilders but alchemists using mercury in the quest for the Elixir and Philosopher’s Stone, hoping for transmutation into gold, but its 17thc notable adherents such as Robert Boyle- despite his Sceptical Chymist- Isaac Newton and Charles II.(1)
One later devotee was Dr. James Price of Guildford, mentioned in his English Eccentrics, by John Timbs who died Today in 1875.
Author, antiquary and apprenticed as a druggist, Timbs however said it wasn’t Price who was the last true believer in alchemy, but Peter Woulfe.(2)
However Price is the more memorable for it was he, a promising young chemist, who wrote a paper in 1782 on his experimentation at Stoke near Guildford, using powders of a deep, red colour, which supposedly converted into pure gold, and white powder into silver. (3)
He demonstrated this experimentation before certain dignitaries and to King George III, some specimen of gold he affirmed he had made, which account was subsequently printed in the Oxford University Press.
He was awarded a medical degree which he thought was due more to his labours in chemistry rather than Spagyric (alchemist) discoveries, and elected as a member of Royal Society in 1781. Price was now to invite personal and professional ruin when Joseph Banks as President of the Royal in 1783 asked him to replicate the experiment before the Society and knowing its unlikelihood. poisoned himself with laurel water, before their eyes.
There were sceptics: in the 1780s Joseph Black at Glasgow University, condemned ‘the visionary pursuit of the golden dreams of alchemy… Dupes to alchemy quite intoxicated with power, riches and grandeur’, which he thought ridiculous in the Age of Enlightenment’.
He pointed to the case of Dr. James Price,’a physician of reputation, learning and worth in England’.
Black regretted that it ‘may engage men of Genius and Learning into illusory research into the Philosopher’s Stone’.
Timbs relates that as late as 1850 a female author on alchemy chose to remain anonymous, and that a ‘man of wealth and position in the Metropolis was being blackmailed due to his experiments’.
Times were changing when chemistry was superseding Alchemy.
(1) When Newton was President of the Royal Society in 1703 he attempted to stamp out alchemy.
(2) Woulfe (1727-1803) was an Irish mineralogist who first had the idea that wolframite might contain a previous undiscovered element, Tungsten.
(3) Price had attended Magdalen Hall Oxford, and on his inheritance was required to change his name from Higginbotham.
Alchemy is found in Shakespeare’s: Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Pericles. Winter’s Tale and Tempest. Ben Jonson also wrote the Alchymist 1610.
Ref: Alchemy and Alchemists. Sean Martin.
Ref: English Eccentrics and Eccentricities. V 1 Chatto & Windus 1866. Timbs.
Ref: Londonopolis: Curious and Quirky History of London. Martin Latham 2014.
Ref: Solomon’s Secret Arts, the Occult in the Age of Enlightenment. Paul Monod.