Even today, many believe that rational thinking was largely responsible for the development of all scientific knowledge accumulated until then. Observation and experiments have helped man to unravel the great unknowns of nature. In this sense, it is customary to observe the natural sciences (Biology, Physics and Chemistry) as the main beneficiaries of all these actions promoted by human interest.
However, religious beliefs and thought did not completely depart in the development of the sciences. A clear proof of this idea can be seen when we focus our attention on a mysterious group of scholars:the alchemists. The accounts of these “scientists” say that their interests in the manipulation of chemical and organic materials surrounded the incessant search for the elixir of eternal life and the transformation of metals into gold.
Having its heyday between the 14th and 16th centuries, alchemy had its origins in Ancient Egypt. In the city of Alexandria, a center of knowledge erected by the Emperor Alexander, writings of an ancient Egyptian technique called kyniâ were gathered. This Egyptian technique involved mastering the chemical processes of embalming and handling metals. Getting in touch with Greek wisdom, kymiâ came to consider that all matter was made up of four basic elements:earth, air, water and fire.
During the Roman domination over Egypt, alchemy came to be condemned by the imperial authorities. With the officialization of Christianity, ordered by Emperor Constantine, in 330, a group of heretics linked to the practice of alchemy were persecuted by the Roman authorities. Known as Nestorians, these practitioners of alchemy took refuge from religious persecution in Persia. At that time, many Persians became interested in mastering these techniques.
Islamic expansion was also of great importance in the preservation and expansion of alchemical knowledge. The Qur'an, the holy book of Muslims, foresaw that knowledge of nature was a laudable way of approaching Allah. Therefore, many Arabs developed studies involving chemical elements and precious metals. While this kind of knowledge developed in the Islamic world, Medieval Europe knew little about these studies.
With the crusade movement, in the Late Middle Ages, alchemy came into contact with Europeans. His search for eternal life, proposed by some alchemists, clashed with the religious thought of the time. This kind of boldness was seen as an offense to the idea that only God could bestow the gift of eternal life. Thus, to avoid possible persecution or to have their knowledge revealed, alchemists used to use a complex symbology that kept the processes and experiments developed by them.
Even though it was frowned upon by the Church, alchemy was a common activity among some clerics. Roger Bacon and Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote some experiments where they reported obtaining gold through other substances and the creation of a mechanical man. During the sixteenth century, alchemy was beginning to gain a new understanding. The British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), already believed that alchemy could develop other promising types of scientific knowledge.
In the 17th century, Robert Boyle began to launch some of the points that would found the birth of a new science:chemistry. Apparently his ideas sought to move away from the mystical side of alchemy. However, Boyle himself believed that a metal could be transmuted. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was another great scientist interested in alchemy. The finding of the "philosopher's stone" occupied several of his studies.
Throughout the 17th century, the popularization of scientific knowledge gained space in the face of alchemy's codes and secrets. Furthermore, the separation between faith and reason, defended by Enlightenment thought, made alchemical knowledge to be seen as mere invention.
Even endowed with beliefs that pursued eternal life and material comfort, alchemy could not be placed outside the history of the development of science. Many of the instruments used in chemical processes and the study of some elements were created thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the alchemists. Furthermore, the thesis of the transformation of chemical elements was confirmed by several studies developed during the 20th century.