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International Year of Chemistry 2011

Anicent Chemistry and Alchemy

Ann Newmark

Chemistry. London; New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.

Eyewitness Books is a series of introductory texts which are visually compelling, as well as informative. Seen here is an answer to the question, “What is chemistry?”


The Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus: Fragments: a Text and Translation with a Commentary by C.C.W. Taylor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c1999.

Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC) and his mentor Leucippus (5th century BC), were the first to posit that all matter was composed of atoms, which they described as tiny, indivisible and indestructible particles in constant motion.

Hermes Trismegistus

Hermetica: the Ancient Greek and Latin Writings Which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. Edited with English translation and notes by Walter Scott. Oxford, Clarendon, 1924–36.

The legendary founder of alchemy Hermes Trismegistus is credited with writing a body of works collectively known as the Hermetica, believed to have been copied and translated from Greek and Coptic manuscripts between the first and third centuries AD, with the main text translated in 1471. Hermetica and the practice of alchemy were wide-spread and influenced theological, philosophical, medicinal and scientific thought.

Roger Bacon

The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon; a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. London, H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1928.

Roger Bacon’s (c. 1214 – 1294) volume is divided into seven parts, each covering a different topic. Bacon proposes a prototype for the scientific method and includes his experiments with gunpowder, among the many other notable observations on a variety of diverse topics in his treatise.

Jābir ibn Hayyān

The Works of Geber. Englished by Richard Russell, 1678. London, Dent; New York, Dutton, 1928.

Jābir ibn Hayyān (c. 721 – 815), was the greatest and most prominent Arabic alchemist.  He served as the court alchemist for the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid.  Centuries later his writings became the foundation for Western alchemy.  Jābir’s name became Latinized as Gerber.  His works reveal important methods of chemical research, such as the mercury-sulfur theory which puts forward the idea that different metals contain different proportions of mercury and sulfur and various processes involving metal refinement, dyeing, glass making, and distillation.

Andrew Weeks

Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation. Albany: State University of New York Press, c1997.

Paracelsus (1493 – 1541) was a Swiss alchemist and practicing physician who made important contributions to both alchemy and medicine. He advanced principles of magnetism and metallurgy among others. He used chemicals and minerals to create medicines which set a foundation for chemical pharmacology and homeopathy.

Andreas Libavius

Die Alchemie des Andreas Libavius: ein Lehrbuch der Chemie aus dem Jahre 1597. Weinheim/Bergstr: Verlag Chemie, 1964.

Andreas Libavius (c. 1555 – 1616) first published Die Alchemie in 1597; it is considered the first chemistry textbook.

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