Is alchemy not the sham science we have been led to believe it is? The Smithsonian on how alchemists’ breakthroughs were pillaged by the forefathers of modern science:
In the 1980s, some revisionist scholars began arguing that alchemists actually made significant contributions to the development of science.
Historians of science began deciphering alchemical texts—which wasn’t easy. The alchemists, obsessed with secrecy, deliberately described their experiments in metaphorical terms laden with obscure references to mythology and history. For instance, text that describes a “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate).
Growing evidence that the alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the material world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note.
Robert Boyle, one of the 17th-century founders of modern chemistry, “basically pillaged” the work of the German physician and alchemist Daniel Sennert, says Newman. When Boyle’s French counterpart, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, substituted a modern list of elements (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and others) for the ancient four elements (earth, air, fire and water), he built on an idea that was “actually widespread in earlier alchemical sources,” Newman writes.
Does this new view of alchemy make the great names in the early history of science seem more derivative and thus less great?