Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My kingdom for a teleportation device!

Posted by on 10/21 at 03:30 PM

“So, son, you’re off to university. And what, pray, will your major subject be?”

For several centuries after the first universities were founded, this question would have produced the same confused expression on a young teenage boy’s face as the logic puzzles that would punctuate his academic life for the next few years: the Western medieval university stood firmly (if somewhat asymmetrically) on the pillars of the seven liberal arts. Students had no choice but to throw themselves into the Trivium (studying grammar, rhetoric and logic as the basis of all scholarly knowledge); and subsequently test their brains onthe Quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy). Only then would a career as a lawyer, medical doctor or cleric be on the menu. This system served the learned Western world quite well, until… well, it’s a long story, but eventually the world changed. Religion and politics, the boundaries of the known world and the definition of science, the identity of authorities and the nature of textbooks - everything that had been taken for granted by generations of students changed its form. And at the same time, reluctantly but surely, the universities adapted themselves to a different model of learning.

In the 17th century, the University of Marburg (Germany) did something unheard of. You might even call it outrageous. You see, medicine had been on academic scene for a long time, but alchemy, the ‘craft’ which was practiced by metalworkers, the lore which had intrigued scholars but was clearly not of an academic nature, had never been part of the university curriculum. But for several decades, and, at the latest, since a certain infamous person known under the preposterous name of Paracelsus had boldly re-painted the picture of alchemy and medicine, these two disciplines became more closely associated with each other. At the same time, the face of alchemy (or rather, chymistry) was changing, and pharmacy was in the air: the idea that bodily illnesses could be cured with chymically produced pills and potions. And while the rest of the scholarly world was watching these developments with some reservations, or participating in it behind the scenes, the University of Marburg took a stand. In 1609, exactly 400 years ago, it became the first university in Europe to set up a chair of chemistry, and thus institute chemistry as a university subject.

Paracelsus, from Salomon Trismosin, Aureum vellus, oder, Guldin Schatz und Kunstkammer (1599). Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard.

Johannes Hartmann(1568 -1631), previously a mathematics professor at Marburg, was appointed professor of “Chymiatrie” (medical/pharmaceutical chemistry) and established the first German student laboratory. (For a slightly more elaborate if somewhat linguistically challenged account of the story see here). And Hartmann and his successors, chemistry and the university are the subjects of a symposium at the University of Marburg next week. Here, those who are lucky enough to be in geographical proximity of Marburg and in full command of the German language will hear more about the story of Johannes Hartmann in a European context, the history of Marburg pharmacy after Hartmann, a chronological low-down on alchemy and chemistry –with practical demonstrations and experiments!-, a low-down on the rationale behind the development of new active ingredients in chemistry and pharmacy, and even modern continuations on these topics in polymers, nanotechnology, methane, atoms and complex surface chemistry. The full programme and the names of the renowned speakers may be found here.

My horse for a teleportation device! (Or something like that). Here’s hoping that the proceedings will be published soon. For the history of alchemy and chemistry at universities, my sons and daughters, is a truly fascinating subject which is worth studying even when you are not at university.

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