The Oil Bath

A blog mainly about chemistry and driving trucks, describing how the world looks from the bench of a lab and how the world looks from the seat of a cab.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Alchemy and chemotherapy


The popular conception of alchemy is that it was the art of making gold from other metals. But really, there's no sharp dividing line between alchemy and chemistry. Not all "alchemists" actually really believed in the transmutation of metals - more on that in another entry. I'd bet that talking about gold was all about getting funded. A very important thing for any academic to worry about! I'd guess that every research proposal back then would have, in the "future goals" section, "making gold".

Anyway, alchemy is really based on a beautiful theoretical view of the universe. To us moderns, the world is basically built out of tiny particles which make up atoms which make up molecules which make up things. But to an alchemist, the world was much more of an organic whole, where even the mineral kingdom was alive. If we see a field of daisies, we imagine that they all somehow grew from a single daisy which spread its offspring over the years - and we're probably right! An alchemist who saw a rich vein of ore would similarly imagine that it grew from a Seed of Metals. He was probably wrong. In fact, he definitely was wrong. But it was a nice theory. And working from that sort of a theoretical framework, making gold shouldn't be harder than growing daisies. Too bad that the alchemists were wrong.

But they did some cool stuff. Like brew up poisonous medicines. One day we were having a seminar in grad school and we had each looked up the toxicity of a different heavy metal - this was just an informal grad-student thing - anyway I'd been assigned antimony, "Sb". Turns out that although there isn't a whole lot of antimony poisoning going on these days, a certain 15th Century alchemist, Basil Valentine, liked to poison people with antimony-based medicines. He could treat depression and also cancer (I'm assuming something like that was meant) this way, with certain side effects:

"The Dose of it before Coagulation is eight Grains taken in Wine. It makes a man very young again, delivers him from all Melancholy, and whatsoever in the Body of man grows and increaseth, as the Hairs and Nails fall off..."

oh yeah, and just about everything else was treatable this way too:

"If anyone hath laboured long with grievous Diseases, and will for some time dayly use this Oil, his Hairs and Nayls will fall off"

Well you know when it's working, don't you? I wonder just how long people lived after this sort of treatment? Wonder how their bone marrow and other vital organs held up?

http://www.sacred-texts.com/alc/antimony.htm

Too bad that I didn't get a cooler metal like lead or mercury. Poor antimony. Yet it's really cool because someone had to work long and hard to poison people with it, they couldn't just spew it out of tailpipes or make paint out of it, it took real effort.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Antimony is used in homeopathic remedies. Granted, it's diluted to the point that you can't detect it, but still. It's good for a whole spectrum of ailments, including but not limited to: "children and young people inclined to grow fat...loathing life...anxious lachrymose mood...longing for acids and pickles."

Next time you can't stop for a jar of gherkins, enjoy antimony!

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