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The Applied Arts of Alchemy

The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at the Science History Institute presents “The Applied Arts of Alchemy,” a multi-day virtual symposium.

The historiography of alchemy has significantly expanded over the last decade, demonstrating that its theoretical and practical applications underpinned diverse medical and scientific advances in the early modern period. Alchemy was more than a scholarly, hermetic art—it was a dynamic, entrepreneurial pursuit that supported the rise of the early chemical and medical industries. While attempts to discover the philosophers’ stone were certainly a part of philosophical knowledge, alchemy and its outputs were embedded into European society, from dye-making and distilling to the development of new drugs.

This virtual symposium will explore alchemy’s practical and applied uses and their lasting impact on chemistry, technology, medicine, experimentation, and the marketplace. Through explorations of entrepreneurship, patronage, and commerce, we will examine the place of alchemical knowledge, ingredients, and products in a proto-industrial developing global market.


Wednesday, May 19  |   Thursday, May 20  |   Friday, May 21

Please note all times are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).


5:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m.

Fellow in Focus Keynote Lecture
“The Thing about Alchemy. . . Secrets, Mixtures, and Discerning the Alchemical in the Potter’s Art”

  • Bruce Moran (University of Nevada, Reno, University Foundation Professor of History, Emeritus and editor of Ambix)

Please note: conference participants do not need to register separately for this event

6:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m.

Distillations Happy Hour

Hosted by Elisabeth Berry Drago and Alexis Pedrick of the Science History Institute’s Distillations podcast featuring:

  • Megan Piorko (Allington Postdoctoral Fellow, Science History Institute)
  • Meagan Allen (Cain Dissertation Fellow, Science History Institute)

THURSDAY, MAY 20, 2021

11:00 a.m.–12:15 p.m.

Daytime Session 1
75 minutes

Lightning Talks

Chair: James Voelkel (Science History Institute)

  • Meagan Allen (Indiana University/Science History Institute)
    “When the Physician Is Not Enough: Roger Bacon on the Importance of Alchemy in Medical Practice”
  • Jo Hedesan (University of Oxford)
    “Sulphur and Universal Medicines in the Work of Jan Baptist Van Helmont”
  • Melissa Salm (University of California, Davis)
    “Alchemy of Contagion: Rethinking Disease Emergence as Radical Mixture”
  • Raffaele Pisano (Lille University, France) and Francesca Ricci (Pisa University, Italy)
    “Historical Details on Borri’s Alchemy”
  • Eduardo Pierini (University of Geneva, Switzerland)
    “Chemical Medicines and Dangerous Drugs: Angelo Sala’s Opiologia

15-Minute Break

12:30 p.m.–1:30 p.m.

Daytime Session 2
60 minutes

Informal Roundtable

Moderator: Daniel Jon Mitchell (Science History Institute)

  • Karen Darling (Executive Editor, University of Chicago Press)
  • Jennifer M. Rampling (Princeton University and author of The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300–1700)
  • Alisha Rankin (Tufts University and author of The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science)
  • Michelle DiMeo (Science History Institute and author of Lady Ranelagh: The Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister)
  • Lawrence M. Principe (Johns Hopkins University, Section Editor for Synthesis series, and author of The Transmutations of Chymistry: Wilhelm Homberg and the Académie Royale des Sciencesand The Secrets of Alchemy)

30-Minute Break

Video Launch
Distilled: A Collections Spotlightwith James Voelkel featuring the Othmer Library’s rare book collection

2:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m.

Daytime Session 3
60 minutes

Lightning Talks

Chair: William R. Newman (Indiana University)

  • Vittoria Feola (University of Padua, Italy)
    “Gabriele Falloppia’s Alchemical Secrets and the Hidden History of the Padua  School”
  • Umberto Veronesi (University College, London)
    “The Cabinet of Professor Vigani, or Something I Have Had in Mind for Some Time Now”
  • Marissa Mundina Garcia (University of Barcelona, Spain)
    “Graell’s Alchemy Manuscript From Historical Archives of the Hospital De La Santa Creu I Sant Pau (XVII C.)”

15-Minute Break

3:15 p.m.–4:45 p.m.

Daytime Session 4
90 minutes

Panel Session

Chair: Jennifer M. Rampling
(Princeton University)

  • Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck, University of London)
    “Print Culture and the Alchemical Republic of Letters”
  • Zoe Screti (University of Birmingham, UK)
    “Collecting and Collating: The Emergence of Alchemical Composite Manuscripts in Early Modern England”
  • Tillmann Taape (Huntington Library)
    “Quintessence in the Workshop: Body and Matter in Early Printed Books on Distillation”

FRIDAY, MAY 21, 2021

11:00 a.m.–12:15 p.m.

Daytime Session 1
75 minutes

Lightning Talks

Chair: Elisabeth Berry Drago (Science History Institute)

  • Justin Niermeier-Dohoney (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Germany
    “Alchemy and the Making of Agricultural Sciences: Experimental Fertilizers in Seventeenth-Century England”
  • Margaret Maurer (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
    “Alchemical Papermaking in the Early Modern Period”
  • Xiaoqian Ji (Johns Hopkins University)
    “The Rebirth of Alchemical Knowledge in Cosmetic Practice: Scholars’ and Amateurs’ Investigations in Early Modern China”
  • Corinna Gannon (Goethe University, Germany) & Christoph Jäggy (Goldsmith in Biel-Benken, Switzerland)
    Electrum–the Reproduction of a Sevenfold Alloy”
  • William R. Newman (Indiana University)
    “Red and White Alchemy”

15-Minute Break

12:30 p.m.–1:30 p.m.

Daytime Session 2
60 minutes

Informal Roundtable

Moderator: Charlotte Abney Salomon (Science History Institute)

  • Elisabeth Berry Drago (Research Curator, Science History Institute)
  • Joel Klein (Molina Curator of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, The Huntington)
  • Anke Timmermann (Type & Forme, Rare Books and Manuscripts)
  • Agnieszka Rec (Associate Editor, Massachusetts Historical Society)

30-Minute Break

Video Launch
Distilled: A Collections Spotlightwith Elisabeth Berry Drago featuring the Institute Museum’s fine art collection

2:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m.

Daytime Session 3
60 minutes

Lightning Talks

Chair: Tara Nummedal (Brown University)

  • Aurelien Ruellet (Le Mans University, France)
    “Erasmus Purling: a Case Study in Alchemical Projecting in 1650s France”
  • George Elliot (Brown University)
    “‘The House of Experiment’: Science and Social Life in Gershom Bulkeley's Seventeenth-Century New England Home”
  • Sarah Lang (University of Graz, Austria)
    “Michael Maier’s Literary Framing as Self-fashioning of an Entrepreneurial Alchemist in the Economy of Secrets
  • Hiro Hirai (Columbia University and Science History Institute)
    “The Case of the Ps.-Paracelsian De Natura Rerum

15-Minute Break

3:15 p.m.–4:45 p.m.

Daytime Session 4
90 minutes


Chair: Pamela Smith (Columbia University)

  • Vera Keller (University of Oregon)
  • Ted McCormick (Concordia University, Canada)
  • Kelly Whitmer (Sewanee: The University of the South)


Michelle DiMeo
Arnold Thackray Director of the Othmer Library, Science History Institute

Elisabeth Berry Drago
Research Curator, Science History Institute

Megan Piorko
Allington Postdoctoral Fellow, Science History Institute

Daniel Jon Mitchell
Director, Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, Science History Institute




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Banner image: Engravings from Musaeum Hermeticum Reformatum et Amplificatum (1678) and Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis (1512), Science History Institute.