About 15 years ago, I read a very good book by John Hedley Brooke, published by Cambridge University Press, called Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Ask me what I recall of it, and the first thing to come to mind would be Luther on alchemy. I remember being startled by a quotation that Brooke gives, in which the great Reformer expresses his appreciation for alchemy. (The source Brooke cited was a journal article that I never tracked down; if there's reason to suspect its authenticity, Luther scholars, let me know.) Elsewhere Brooke remarks the Christocentric nature of the theology of Paracelsus; that, too, came as a surprise at the time.

In the intervening years, a number of scholars have been working to revise the received account of alchemy. You may remember as I do a brief mention of alchemy in survey classes, where it was adduced as an instance of the pitiful superstition and mummery dispelled by Enlightenment. (Nothing here about medieval science as studied by Pierre Duhem and others; those were the Dark Ages, you see.) And in literature alchemists turned up right and left, whether as shrewd rogues who exploited human folly or as victims of their own desire for wealth and power.

Earlier this month at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, a number of these scholars gathered for an International Conference on the History of Alchemy and Chymistry ("chymistry" referring to early chemistry in which alchemical speculation and practice played a significant role). Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University, the chief organizer of the conference, and William Newman of Indiana University, were among the presiding spirits of the event; also present was Allen Debus, to whom many of the speakers paid ...

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