Science Diction: The Origin Of 'Chemistry'

The word chemistry is said to have roots in either ancient Egypt or Greece. Science historian Howard Markel discusses the word's origin, and the modern naming of the field of chemistry by British natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle in his 1661 treatise, The Skeptical Chymist.

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IRA FLATOW, host: Time now for our monthly episode of Science Diction, where we talk about the origins of scientific words, with my guest Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also director of the Center for the History of Medicine. They should combine those names to make it easier to say. Hi, Howard.

HOWARD MARKEL: Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: How are you? What's our word today?

MARKEL: Well, the word today is chemistry.

FLATOW: We have chemistry.

MARKEL: We have...

FLATOW: You and I have some chemistry.

MARKEL: We do. We do. You know, there's a lot - we've all taken chemistry in high school, and some of us have even taken it in college. But there's a great of controversy. Did it come from ancient Egypt or from ancient Greece? Now some have claimed that there's an Egyptian origin. Back in 300 A.D., a Roman emperor, Diocletian, decreed that the burning all of Egyptian writings that outline the transmutation of gold into silver. And based on this edict, as well as several hieroglyphic inscriptions, people such as Plutarch in 100 A.D. insisted that the root word chem was derived from the name of ancient Egypt, which was called the land of chem, or alchemia. And that really means rich black soil, the type of soil that flourished near the banks of the Nile, and it was prized for its fertility as opposed to the sand of the surrounding desert.

But the Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, declares that the word is more likely the child of Greek roots, chemia, which means pouring or infusion. And the ancient Greeks applied this term to what we would call pharmaceutical chemistry. The physicians would extract juices or infusions of plants for medicinal purposes. Now, for many centuries, chemistry and alchemy were practically interchangeable for Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and later, Europeans, well into the 16th century. And the goal was to discover or create a mythical philosopher's stone that could turn base metals into gold and silver and also act as an elixir that would magically cure all of one's ills and grant us eternal youth.

But there was also a wonderful set of philosophies attached to alchemy that would concern your own transformation into a virtuous person. And that continued all the way into the psychoanalytic writings of Carl Jung. I should mention, by the way, that the original "Harry Potter" book, the first one, in keeping with the alchemical theme, was called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." But despite its runaway success in Great Britain, the U.S. publisher changed it to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" because they believed that no American child would buy a book containing the word philosopher.

FLATOW: Heavens forbid.

MARKEL: But later on, in the 17th century on, a great many natural philosophers and alchemists, including Robert Boyle, began to rethink the field, and they wanted to apply physical methods to study matter. And in fact, Robert Boyle wrote a 1661 treatice called "The Sceptical Chymist," and he renamed the field chemistry. And he's known for a lot of things, best known for Boyle's Law, the universally proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of gas.

And as the centuries proceeded, there was a whole host of scientific revolutionaries, you know, Lavoisier, John Dalton, many others. And they developed what we know now as modern chemistry, which is a quantitative and reproducible framework for understanding not only the composition of matter, but also how matter can change forms by means of chemical reactions.

So it's been some time since we've discovered the teachings of alchemy and the philosopher's stone and all that wonderful mysticism about transforming not only lead into gold but ourselves, unless that is, you're a graduate of the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It's still taught there, I'm told.

FLATOW: Well, Howard, you know how to sum the whole thing up very, very well and bring it up to date. Thank you very much. Fascinating history.

MARKEL: Well, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: And have a good weekend to you.

MARKEL: You too. Have a safe one.

FLATOW: Yeah. We'll do the best we can. Thanks a lot, Howard.

MARKEL: OK.

FLATOW: Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. That's about all the time we have for today.

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