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What is Alchemy?

Lancilot figure 2Alchemy \'al-kuh-mee\ 1: a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life. (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition)

This is the standard definition. However, is this all there is? What is this ancient (far older than Medieval era) practice all about? Who were the practitioners? What were they trying to accomplish aside from the obvious? And, what were their contributions to modern science and chemistry, in particular? There are some who contend that with the birth of modern chemistry, alchemy disappeared. However, that may not be the case - something each person must decide for themselves. Many assert that given the present-day pursuits by chemists, pharmacognosists, and the like, of a "wonder drug" that could cure all of humankind's ailments, that alchemy is alive and well...

Image at right from Carlo Lancilotti's Der Brennende Salamander (1697)

About this exhibit...

"The Magic and Myth of Alchemy" exhibit was created in honor of the International Year of Chemistry, an event celebrated by chemists and chemistry associations throughout 2011. In truth, however, there has been a wish to present the alchemical holdings of the Lloyd Library and Museum to the general public for some time. While we do not hold the most ancient treatises from Asia or the Middle East, the Lloyd holds a wealth of materials from the Early Modern and later periods, along with translations and later editions of some of the earlier volumes. A quick search in the Lloyd's online catalog yields no less than some 140 titles pertaining to that topic in some fashion, dating from 1544 to 2010. The collection includes the works of Paracelsus, Maier, Glauber, Hermes Trismegistus, and that alchemist made even more famous through a mention in the Harry Potter ™ series, Nicholas Flamel.

The alchemical works have been used for a variety of reasons, from the inspiration for creating artwork to study by university students pursuing the topic academically. But, you might ask yourself, why would a largely botanical library have such a sizeable collection of alchemical volumes? The short answer is, it is an eclectic collection, and we have a little of everything at the Lloyd related to natural science and its history. A more likely answer revolves around the interests of the Lloyd brothers, in particular John Uri Lloyd, who did a great deal of chemical research, taught chemistry, and invented his own cold still.