“Basil Valentine, Last of the Alchemists, First of the Chemists” — James J. Walsh



James J. Walsh, K.C.St.G., M.D. Ph.D., LL.D., Litt.D., Sc.D.


Old Time Makers of Medicine, 1911

“Fieri enim potest ut operator erret et a via regia deflectat, sed ut erret natura quando recte tractatur fieri non potest.”

“For it is quite possible that the physician should err and be turned aside from the straight (royal) road, but that nature when she is rightly treated should err is quite impossible.”

This is one of the preliminary maxims of a treatise on medicine written by a physician born not later than the first half of the fifteenth century, and who may have lived even somewhat earlier. We are so prone to think of the men of that time as utterly dependent on authority, not daring to follow their own observation, suspecting nature, and almost sure to be convinced that only by going counter to her could success in the treatment of disease be obtained, that it is a surprise to most people to find how completely the attitude of mind, that is supposed to be so typically modern in this regard, was anticipated full four centuries ago. There are other expressions of this same great physician and medical writer, Basil Valentine, which serve to show how faithfully he strove with the lights that he had to work out the treatment of patients, just as we do now, by trying to find out nature’s way, so as to imitate her beneficent processes and purposes. It is quite clear that he is but one of many faithful, patient observers and experimenters—true scientists in the best sense of the word—who lived in all the centuries of the Middle Ages.

Speculations and experiments with regard to the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone, and the transmutation of metals, are presumed to have filled up all the serious interests of the alchemists, supposed to be almost the only scientists of those days. As a matter of fact, however, men were making original observations of profound significance, and these were considered so valuable by their contemporaries that, though printing had not yet been invented, even the immense labor involved in the manifold copying of large folio volumes by the slow hand process did not suffice to deter them from multiplying the writings of these men so numerously that they were preserved in many copies for future generations, until the printing press came to perpetuate them.

Of this there is abundant evidence in the preceding pages as regards medicine, and, above all, surgery, while a summary of accomplishments of workers in other departments will be found in Appendix II, “Science at the Medieval Universities.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with some of the supposed foundations of modern chemistry crumbling to pieces under the influence of the peculiarly active light thrown upon our nineteenth century chemical theories by the discovery of radium, and our observations on radio-active elements generally, there is a reawakening of interest in some of the old-time chemical observers, whose work used to be laughed at as so unscientific, or, at most, but a caricature of real science, and whose theory of the transmutation of elements into one another was considered so absurd. It is interesting in the light of this to recall that the idea that the elementary substances were essentially distinct from each other, and that it would be impossible under any circumstances to convert one element into another, belongs entirely to the nineteenth century. Even so deeply scientific a mind as that of Newton, in the preceding century, could not bring itself to acknowledge the tradition, that came to be accepted subsequent to his time, of the absurdity of metallic transformation. On the contrary, he believed quite formally in transmutation as a basic chemical principle, and declared that it might be expected to occur at any time. He had seen specimens of gold ores in connection with metallic copper, and concluded that this was a manifestation of the natural transformation of one of these yellow metals into the other.

With the discovery that radium transforms itself into helium, and that, indeed, all the so-called radioactivities of the heavy metals are probably due to a natural transmutation process constantly at work, the ideas of the older chemists cease entirely to be a subject for amusement. The physical chemists of the present day are very ready to admit that the old teaching of the absolute independence of something over seventy elements is no longer tenable, except as a working hypothesis. The doctrine of “matter and form,” taught for so many centuries by the scholastic philosophers, which proclaimed that all matter is composed of two principles, an underlying material substratum, and a dynamic or informing principle, has now more acknowledged verisimilitude, or lies at least closer to the generally accepted ideas of the most progressive scientists, than it has at any time for the last two or three centuries. Not only the great physicists, but also the great chemists, are speculating along lines that suggest the existence of but one form of matter, modified according to the energies that it possesses under a varying physical and chemical environment. This is, after all, only a restatement in modern times of the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquin, in the thirteenth century.

It is not surprising, then, that there should be a reawakening of interest in the lives of some of the men, who, dominated by some of the earlier scholastic ideas, by the tradition of the possibility of finding the philosopher’s stone, which would transmute the baser metals into the precious metals, devoted themselves with quite as much zeal as any modern chemist to the observation of chemical phenomena. One of the most interesting of these—indeed, he might well be said to be the greatest of the alchemists—is the man whose only name that we know is that which appears on a series of manuscripts written in the High German dialect of the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. That name is Basil Valentine, and the writer, according to the best historical traditions, was a Benedictine monk. The name Basil Valentine may only have been a pseudonym, for it has been impossible to trace it among the records of the monasteries of the time. That the writer was a monk, however, there seems to be no room for doubt, for his writings give abundant evidence of it, and, besides, in printed form they began to have their vogue at a time when there was little likelihood of their being attributed to a monastic source, unless an indubitable tradition connected them with some monastery. Continue reading ““Basil Valentine, Last of the Alchemists, First of the Chemists” — James J. Walsh”