Alchemists were doomed from the start in their impossible pursuit to transform base metals into gold. Luckily, they left their mark in the realms of lighting, explosives, beauty products, kitchenware and distilled spirits.

Der Alchimist by Franz Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885), oil on canvas. The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH)

Mary the Jewess or Miriam the Prophetess

What little we do know about Mary comes second-hand from the works of the Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis, but she is considered by many to be the first true alchemist of the Western world. Mary, who probably lived in ancient Egypt between the first and third centuries A.D., is believed to have invented several chemical instruments and to have been the first to identify hydrochloric acid and prepare caput mortuum, a dark-purple pigment. This would undoubtedly make her a chemistry rock star, but the unfortunate fact that none of her original work survives means that it’s debatable whether she even existed. Assuming that she did, Mary is credited with the invention of the bain-marie. This double boiler is used extensively in labs for gently heating chemicals and in kitchens for the critical task of melting chocolate. Another of her contributions was a type of alembic, a device used to purify liquids by distillation. This apparatus is as ubiquitous in the contemporary chem lab as it is in a moonshine den: it’s still used around the world to produce whisky and brandy.

Maria the Jewess, alchemist, 1st century A.D. Engraving by Viridarium Chymicum Daniel Stolucio, approximately 1624. Wellcome Library, London.

Jabir ibn Hayyan, Geber, Pseudo-Geber or Latin Pseudo-Geber

Another many-monikered alchemist, Geber was a Persian polymath from first-century Kufa (modern-day Iran) who has been described as the father of early chemistry. He was the first to describe a “who’s who” list of elements and chemicals (including mercury, sulphur, antimony, arsenic and sulphuric acid), as well as publishing the recipe for the iconic pigment vermillion. His treatises were translated into Latin in the Middle Ages and became standard texts for European alchemists, justifying their search for the elixir of life (otherwise known as the Philosopher’s Stone) and attempts to transmute cheaper metals into gold. But some historians argue that a 13th-century Franciscan monk, Paul of Taranto, may have been the real author of Geber’s most famous work Summa perfectionist magisterii (which modestly translates to “The Height of the Perfection of Mastery”). Like the redoubtable Mary, Geber invented over 20 items of laboratory equipment, including an alembic still that could be used to distil wine and increase its alcohol concentration. Clearly these ancient alchemists foresaw a time when hard liquor would be as valuable as gold.

Engraving of Jabir ibn Hayyan Geber, an Arabian alchemist, from the Pleasures and Lives of Illustrious Men, Andre Thevet, 1584. Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

Ge Hong or Ko Hung

Ge Hong, a Taoist philosopher during China’s third-century Qin Dynasty, dedicated his life to the search for physical immortality. His lasting legacy was his attempt to reconcile immortality-centred Taoism with Confucian wisdom on how to live productively and resolve conflict. Nevertheless, his scientific experiments were a major force behind the invention of a substance well known to truncate life: gunpowder. While searching for the elixir of life, the Taoist alchemists experimented with heating various minerals. Although another Chinese scientist, Wei Boyang, had created a black powder in the first century that would “fly and dance” violently, Ge Hong first transcribed the ingredients of gunpowder (which he obtained by mixing sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre, otherwise known as potassium nitrate). Unfortunately, he never got close to creating an alchemical medicine to revitalise the body — although many people do find the sight of fireworks revitalising.

Chinese woodcut, portrait of Ge Hong by Gan Bozong (Tang period, 618–907). Wellcome Images.

Isabella Cortese

The 16th century was the beginning of alchemy’s heyday in Europe. Alongside alchemists who devoted their life to their art, wealthy members of the aristocracy dabbled in alchemy as a hobby (they were disparagingly known as alchemisti ignoranti by the professionals). In Italy, books of alchemical “secrets” were popular and many focused not on developing the elixir of life or transmuting gold, but on beautification strategies. Only one, however, was penned by a woman — and it was in fact the first book to ever be published by a female scientist. The Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese appeared in print in 1561 and shared how the Signora had travelled through Europe studying ancient alchemical texts. She divulged many of her personal recipes, such as how to distil water, make perfume and melt metals for jewellery — the original DIY green beauty book for the alchemically inclined.

I secreti d’Isabella Cortese. Giovanni Bariletto, 1561.

Hennig Brand

Many scientific endeavours are the result of blood, sweat and tears — but not generally urine. Phosphorus, a chemical element used in first-gen TV screens and unflattering fluorescent lighting, might be one of these special cases. The man behind the 1669 discovery, Hennig Brand from Germany, was a self-taught and unqualified alchemist in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. Brand got his hands on an alchemical recipe which called for alum, potassium nitrate and copious amounts of his own urine. After leaving it out in the sun for several weeks, Brand boiled the rancid liquid into a syrup, before cooling, reheating and distilling. The substance that dripped out of his alembic was white and shining: the self-igniting white phosphorous. Convinced he had realised his dream, Brand didn’t accept that his discovery wasn’t the Philosopher’s Stone for another six years. By this stage, he was broke and sold his recipe and stockpile to the chemist Johann Kunckel. Brand was not properly credited with the discovery of phosphorous until well after his death. Fittingly, its chemical symbol is ‘P’.

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone by Joseph Wright (1734–1797), oil on canvas. The painting illustrates the discovery of phosphorus by Hennig Brand in 1669. Anthroposophie.

Chemistry PhD candidate, science communicator and freelance science writer based in Sydney, Australia.

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