Anatomy of Seventeenth-Century Alchemy and Chemistry

  • Anna S T Leendertz-Ford

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


It is claimed that alchemy and alchemists/early modern chymists contributed substantially to proto-chemistry in important ways. To a significant degree, sound science was being practised in the Latin West during the seventeenth century, though not all criteria were met consistently across all nations at all times. This thesis will:
(1)Define the criteria for best practice of science (specifically chemistry) using a Wittgensteinian approach;
(2)Examine the level to which such criteria were appreciated and adhered to across a representative sample of chemical practices during the seventeenth century.
As a counteraction to the extremely negative perceptions of alchemy, often associated with the occult, I demonstrate a dynamic, international community, whose operational practices, far from being unscientific, included many of the criteria which are regarded in modern times as essential prerequisites of science. Determining exactly what constitutes good science is problematic, especially since it is disputed by some that science can even be distinguished from non-science. Therefore, a Wittgensteinian 'family resembles' approach to analysis of science has been selected, establishing the essential characteristics by which good science can be recognised. These criteria are divided into two groups, one designated ‘core requirements’ plus further ‘desirable’ elements.
By evaluating various Early Modern chymistry textbooks, operational procedures, research communities and other components, I conclude that many of the criteria for good science were extant in the period in the Latin West. There are a few criteria which are under-represented or absent, for example, Popperian falsificationism and an inconsistent application of scepticism. The overall conclusion is the core criteria of critical reasoning, robust experimentation techniques, challenges to authorities and many of the important values and methods were present within a research community that had developed significantly in the Early Modern period, spanning Europe during the seventeenth-century and beyond.
Date of Award12 May 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorTzuchien Tho (Supervisor)


  • Philosophy of Science
  • Alchemy
  • Chemistry
  • Early modern history

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