Medical Alchemy in History
Application of the principles of alchemy for medical purposes, in particular for the harmonization of human nature and extension of healthy life.
Medical alchemy, or the application of alchemy for medical purposes, has been long associated with the pursuit of human longevity and amelioration of the morbid aging process (Maxwell-Stuart 2012). Thus, alchemy can be considered one of the foundational elements in the history of gerontology (Stambler 2014). The beginning of flourishing of medical alchemy can be traced to the medieval Islamic (Arab and Persian) medical scholars who coined the term “al-kimia” where “al” is the Arabic definite article. However, the origins of the field are much earlier and more varied geographically, including precedents in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece that inspired the works of Islamic scholars. The etymologic suggestions for the origin of “kimia” include “khemia” (“the land of black earth,” the ancient name of Egypt), “khymatos” (pouring/infusing in Greek), “khymos (the Greek word for juice), etc. Cognate or ancestral ideas could be found across Asia, in particular in India (Ayurveda, the science of long life, in particular its “Rasayana” branch concerned with rejuvenation by medicinal means) and China (Neidan and Waidan, commonly translated as, respectively, internal and external alchemy) that presumably also influenced medieval Islamic scholars. The strong relation of the Muslim (Arab and Persian) alchemy to medicine can be seen in the etymology of many medical and chemical terms that are still used, such as “elixir” (from the Arabic “al-iksir” – dry medicinal powder), nushadir, alcohol (“al-kuhul”), and others. Numerous Muslim alchemists expressed explicit interest in amelioration of aging and life extension (Gruman 1966). Thus, one of the founding figures of Muslim alchemy, Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān (also known as Jabir in Arabic and Geber in Latin, c. 721–815), posited a medical alchemical theory of elements that profoundly influenced both the Islamic and European (Latin-Christian) alchemy and the subsequent development of medical chemistry. According to this theory, the prolongation of healthy life may be achieved by a balancing or equilibration of “elements” (“natures”) in the human body. “This equilibrium once obtained, they will no longer be subject to change, alteration or modification and neither they nor their children ever will perish” (Gruman 1966). Also, according to the alchemist Ibn-Bishrun (c. 1000 CE), quoted by the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldoun (1332–1406): “Man suffers from the disharmony of his component elements. If his elements were in complete harmony and thus not effected by accidents and inner contradictions, the soul would not be able to leave his body” (Stambler 2017).
The word “alchemy” apparently took root in Europe in the twelfth century, the first European alchemical text presumably being translated from Arabic to Latin by Robert of Chester in 1144, entitled Liber de compositione alchemiae (the book of alchemical composition). The preservation of balance of particular elements (natures or humors) has become the foundational principle for the scholastic theory of longevity also for the European alchemy. Among the notable proponents of this theory were the Italian theologian and alchemist Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the English philosopher and alchemist Roger Bacon (c. 1219–1292) who treated on longevity in his Opus Majus (1266), the German friar and alchemist Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) who wrote about the prolongation of life in On Youth and Old Age and On Life and Death, the Italian physician Arnaldus de Villa Nova (c. 1240–1311), the fifteenth-century (rather legendary) German Benedictine monk Basil Valentine, and many others.
Yet, the person who is most strongly associated with the wedding of alchemy and medicine is the Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541). In fact, Paracelsus is commonly considered as the founder of medical chemistry (iatrochemistry, from the Greek “Iatros” – Doctor). Like most other alchemists, he believed that human life can be prolonged well into centuries, or even “as long as Methuselah” and sought the quinta essentia that would have “the power to change us, to renew us, and to restore us” and that would “transform the body, removing its harmful parts, its crudity, its incompleteness, and transform everything into a pure, noble and indestructible being” (Jacobi 1995; Waite 1894). Paracelsus suggested quite a few elixirs for rejuvenation (Lloyd 1883). One of the more famous was Paracelsus’ “Elixir Proprietatis” (proprietary elixir), containing myrrh, aloe, and saffron, which could be found in pharmacopoeias and pharmacies as late as the end of the nineteenth century.
Medical alchemy played a formative role in the foundation not only of medical chemistry, but also physiology. Thus, the Swiss physician Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), commonly acknowledged as a pioneer of physiology, was strongly interested in alchemy and rejuvenation. In the 8th volume of his monumental Elementa Physiologiae Corporis Humani (Physiological Elements of the Human Body, 1757–1766), von Haller included a large section “Decrementum” dedicated to aging and longevity (Haller 1778). In that section, Haller treated age-related deterioration of various organs and humors; comparative longevity of plants, animals, and humans; possibilities of rejuvenation (synonymous with regeneration of organs); cases of extremely long life (including a list of supercentenarians); and possible causes of longevity (including climate and diet). Haller also allegedly experimented with life-prolonging elixirs such as “acid elixir” (named elixir acidum Halleri).
Haller apparently was influenced in his pursuit of longevity and rejuvenation by his teacher, the Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738), yet another pioneer of physiology (introducing, among other notions, the concept of hemodynamic equilibrium). In Elementa Chemiae (1724), Boerhaave presented five different processes for making Paracelsus’ Elixir Proprietatis and highly recommended its efficacy (Lloyd 1883). Boerhaave was also famous for his attempt to rejuvenate Amsterdam’s burgomaster by ordering him to sleep between two young persons (using the practice of “Shunamitism” after King David’s example, as described in 1 Kings 1:2). Boerhaave fostered the interest in these subjects in yet another of his famous pupils and assistants, the Dutch-Austrian physician Gerard van Swieten (1700–1772). Aging and longevity were among the major topics of van Swieten’s five-volume commentary on Boerhaave’s Aphorismi, but perhaps van Swieten’s best known book on healthy longevity was his Oratio de senum valetudine tuenda (Oration on the care of health of the aged, published in 1778, first presented in 1763). Another crucial figure in the succession of rejuvenators from Paracelsus to Boerhaave was the Dutch (Flemish) physician Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579–1644), the author of “pneumatic”/gas chemistry and one of the most prominent philosophers of vitalism. Van Helmont was also adept in the preparation of elixirs from mineral, plant and animal sources.
Notably, in the works of early physiologists, the search for “elixirs” coexisted with a routine practice of medicine and hygienic recommendations, though there were differences of emphasis in different authors. Through the works of early physiologists and medical chemists (iatro-chemists), the ideas of alchemy, in particularly the theory of harmonization of body elements and the ideological drive to intervene into human nature to eradicate ill-health and prolong life, can be still felt to influence modern science.
Summary and Future Directions of Research
The history of the alchemical pursuit of longevity goes back to the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greco-Roman antiquity, with cognate ideas in ancient India and China, and persisted through the Middle Ages in the Middle East and Europe. Even though the explicit influence of alchemy may have ended by the early modern period, around the eighteenth century, the influence of its ideology, as regards the drive for the amelioration of the degenerative aging process and extension of healthy life, may be still felt today, also as a part of the historical and inspirational legacy of gerontology. Future research should consider both the parallels and distinctions between present-day research and some of the earlier alchemical proto-scientific notions and the ideological influence of medical alchemy on present-day research.
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