Boyle and the Philosopher’s Stone

Toward the end of his life Robert Boyle withdrew from society and no longer received guests. He said that he wanted to “recruit his spirits, range his papers”, and prepare some important chemical investigations which he proposed to leave “as a kind of hermetic legacy to the studious disciples of that art”, but he never made public what these were. In 1689 he petitioned to repeal an act passed during the reign of Henry IV which prohibited the alchemical transformation of other metals into gold. The relevant part of the act states “That none from henceforth should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if any the same do, they should now incur the pain of felony.” A letter from Boyle to Christopher Kirkby on 29 April, 1689 underscores his arguments.

I still am, of opinion that the act of Henry IV has been, and whilst it still remains in force, will be, a great discouragement to the industry of skillful men which is very happily improved in this inquisitive age. And therefore, that the repealing of a law, so darkly and ambiguously penned, will much conduce to the public good, and be in particular advantageous to the counties of Cornwall and Devonshire where tin so much abounds.



Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715)

Boyle with the help of his friend and spiritual advisor, Gilbert Burnet, the influential Bishop of Salisbury, succeeded in getting a new act passed in August of that year. It required that any gold and silver produced using these new processes be deposited in the royal mint in the Tower of London.


Isaac Newton 1642-1727

When he died in 1692, Boyle left for John Locke a recipe for the transmutation of gold along with a reddish brown powdery substance that was necessary for the process. Sir Isaac Newton received a version of the recipe but apparently not the red earth. An exchange of correspondence between them remains, in which Newton begins by telling Locke that he too knows of Boyle’s recipe. He then writes again explaining how he learned about Locke’s possession of it and requests a sample of the red earth and further details of the alchemical process. The correspondence ends with a note in which Newton declares that he has not succeeded in his alchemical quest and is skeptical of its possibility.

Many of these bits of information have been available from soon after Boyle died in 1692 and were published in his collected works in 1714. A great deal of his alchemical work was omitted from the published works; but some was kept unpublished and some actually discarded, presumably so as not to tarnish his scientific reputation. The correspondence from Newton to Locke emerged later from other sources. Over the last fifteen years or so with the careful examination of previously unexamined existing papers, the addition of yet more information and changing perceptions of the 17th century context, the view of Boyle has transformed. In earlier accounts, his religious, alchemical and medical interests were subordinated to his strong scientific empiricism, and he was portrayed as an earnest scientist with a high degree of skepticism about alchemy. More recently, as more of his papers have been examined, Boyle’s religiosity, his deep interest in alchemy and his role in medical research have been explored in greater detail with the result that his religious scruples, his connection to the alchemical tradition and to its application to medicine, are seen by some as at least as important in understanding his work as his direct dedication to what we now consider to be experimental science. What emerges for us is Boyle’s role using his enormous resources to pursue all approaches available to him to achieve his own health. He combined the mechanical view of the body espoused by Descartes, with the chemical account developed by Paracelsus. This chemical-mechanical account of the human body became dominant scientifically in the next century and became clinically central by the 19th century.




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