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The Transmutations of Chymistry

Wilhelm Homberg and the Académie Royale des Sciences

This book reevaluates the changes to chymistry that took place from 1660 to 1730 through a close study of the chymist Wilhelm Homberg (1653–1715) and the changing fortunes of his discipline at the Académie Royale des Sciences, France’s official scientific body. By charting Homberg’s remarkable life from Java to France’s royal court, and his endeavor to create a comprehensive theory of chymistry (including alchemical transmutation), Lawrence M. Principe reveals the period’s significance and reassesses its place in the broader sweep of the history of science.

Principe, the leading authority on the subject, recounts how Homberg’s radical vision promoted chymistry as the most powerful and reliable means of understanding the natural world. Homberg’s work at the Académie and in collaboration with the future regent, Philippe II d’Orléans, as revealed by a wealth of newly uncovered documents, provides surprising new insights into the broader changes chymistry underwent during, and immediately after, Homberg. A human, disciplinary, and institutional biography, The Transmutations of Chymistry significantly revises what was previously known about the contours of chymistry and scientific institutions in the early eighteenth century.

504 pages | 16 halftones, 6 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2020


Biography and Letters


History: History of Technology

History of Science


"This clever book is a biography of a person—Wilhelm Homberg (1653–1715); an institution—the Académie Royale des Sciences; and a discipline—the biography of chymistry from 1670 to 1730. Lawrence M. Principe has thus accomplished the trifecta of intellectual history, using a significant but largely understudied individual to analyze an equally understudied period—the history of chymistry between Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier. . . . I highly recommend this work and congratulate Principe for his latest achievement."


"The Transmutations of Chymistry is the work of a master in his field, full of insights and very well written. Its production values are high, with both footnotes and a full bibliography, and the fifteen-page 'Note on Sources' at the end is a gold mine of information for researchers not only in chymistry but in Parisian science under Louis XIV. It is a considerable achievement."

Annals of Science

"With this brilliant investigation, well-documented and written with enthusiasm, Lawrence Principe transforms our understanding of chemistry in the eighteenth century."

Revue d'histoire des sciences (Translated from French)

"Telling three stories in one volume is the great achievement of this fascinating and erudite book. The biography of a dedicated savant who managed to engage the Duc d’Orléans in his laboratory work, interwoven with the story of the prestigious French Academy of Sciences, provides a vivid snapshot of the long history of chemistry: a unique moment when the alchemical quest for gold merged with the ambition to establish chemistry on the sound theoretical foundations of natural philosophy. With its punning title, this book undoubtedly transmutes the old clichés about the death of alchemy and the birth of modern chemistry."

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Université Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne

"This is a fascinating study of the improbable life of a great but comparatively unheralded chemist: Guillaume Homberg. The book traces the continuing influence of Homberg in eighteenth-century French chemistry through two focal interests: his concern to raise chemistry above the artisanal level to that of a true natural science, and his interest and even passion for chrysopoeia, alchemical metallic transmutation. Through Principe’s biographical details of Homberg’s peregrinations, his interactions with chemists and natural philosophers throughout Europe, and his own research and writings, the reader is fully immersed in European chemical thought and practice of the year 1700."

Seymour Mauskopf, Duke University

"Wilhelm Homberg has long been known as an important figure in the history of chemistry. By examining Homberg’s alchemical preoccupations and those of his contemporaries, Principe not only manages to throw a brilliant new light on this Enlightenment thinker, but to reveal a rich alchemical subtext underlying eighteenth-century chemistry in general."

William R. Newman, author of Newton the Alchemist

"With his peerless knowledge of the archives and obvious taste and talent for unraveling the arcana of the complex social relations and challenges of science at the turn of the eighteenth century, Principe keeps readers on tenterhooks in his study of the three lives—human, disciplinary, and institutional—of German chemist Wilhelm Homberg. He renders the full measure of this atypical figure, revealing him as a key player in the world of chemistry at the Académie Royale des Sciences. This masterful study offers a chance to reassess Homberg’s place within and influence on French chemistry in the Enlightenment."

Patrice Bret, Centre Alexandre-Koyré

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
List of Abbreviations


Chapter 1. A Merchant of the Marvelous
Chapter 2. A Batavian in Paris
Chapter 3. Essaying Chymistry
Chapter 4. A New Chymical Light
Chapter 5. Chrysopoeia at the Académie and the Palais Royal
Chapter 6. Chymistry in Homberg’s Later Years: Practices, Promises, Poisons, and Prisons
Chapter 7. Homberg’s Legacy

Epilogue: Homberg and the Transmutations of Chymistry at the Académie
Note on Sources
Sources Cited

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