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Gehennical Fire

Gehennical Fire

The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution

William R. Newman

ISBN 9780674341715

Publication date: 12/08/1994

Reputed to have performed miraculous feats in New England—restoring the hair and teeth to an aged lady, bringing a withered peach tree to fruit—Eirenaeus Philalethes was also rumored to be an adept possessor of the alchemical philosophers’ stone. That the man was merely a mythical creation didn’t diminish his reputation a whit—his writings were spectacularly successful, read by Leibniz, esteemed by Newton and Boyle, voraciously consumed by countless readers. Gehennical Fire is the story of the man behind the myth, George Starkey.

Though virtually unknown today and little noted in history, Starkey was America’s most widely read and celebrated scientist before Benjamin Franklin. Born in Bermuda, he received his A.B. from Harvard in 1646 and four years later emigrated to London, where he quickly gained prominence as a “chymist.” Thanks in large part to the scholarly detective work of William Newman, we now know that this is only a small part of an extraordinary story, that in fact George Starkey led two lives. Not content simply to publish his alchemical works under the name Eirenaeus Philalethes, “A Peaceful Lover of Truth,” Starkey spread elaborate tales about his alter ego, in effect giving him a life of his own.


  • [An] impressive book… Newman has pulled off two remarkable achievements in a single book—and one of modest size at that. To begin with, he has reconstructed the career of an intellectual adventurer whose talents for investigating the natural world and for promoting his own fame were equally outsized… [Starkey] was not only a medical reformer, he was also one of the most ingenious and prolific of those strange figures, half con man and half high-tech entrepreneur, who were known at the time as projectors… This story of a forgotten career, though told with much learning and occasional wit, forms only one strand in the double helix of Newman’s book. He also seeks to identify the sources and explain the contents of Starkey’s chemical thought and practice. The obstacles to such a project that the historian of alchemy confronts would daunt most scholars… By painstaking and meticulous analysis [Newman] establishes the exact chemical experiments that Starkey had devised, identifying their ingredients in both seventeenth-century and modern terms… The dark language of alchemy emerges as an early form of scientific notation: precise, rigorous, inaccessible to the outsider but clear to the expert. Considered simply as a piece of historical craftsmanship, Newman’s efficient decoding and partial rehabilitation of these rebarbative texts compels admiration… Gehennical Fire deserves to reach a wide public. It helps to revise a revisionist historiography of science which has become something of an orthodoxy in its own right… The boundaries between Aristotelianism and alchemy, establishment science and reform, traditional natural philosophy and the Scientific Revolution emerge from his analysis as permeable, even fluid: territories long described as separate turn out to overlap. Above all, Newman offers powerful evidence that the dark science of alchemy formed part of the high intellectual tradition in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Neither the alchemists’ alembics not their lives will ever look quite the same.

    —Anthony Grafton, New York Review of Books

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press