Cover: Gehennical Fire in HARDCOVER

Gehennical Fire

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

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$100.00 • £86.95 • €90.95

ISBN 9780674341715

Publication Date: 12/08/1994


320 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

14 halftones


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[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, The New York Review of Books

To recover the worldview of alchemists is no easy matter and demands the disciplined use of the historical imagination: [Newman’s] style, confident, spirited and ironic, and his evident knowledge and enthusiasm carry us back into another world… To this hermeneutics, Newman is an excellent guide… Newman shows how studying an obscure and ambiguous figure can bring the science of the period to life. And he shows that alchemy can be studied like more mainstream science, given the effort required to penetrate its language, verbal and visual. Because his remedies were used by Boyle and his writings studied by Boyle, G. W. Leibniz and George Stahl as well as by Newton, Starkey was clearly not an insignificant figure. He makes us think again about the ‘Scientific Revolution.’—David Knight, Nature

Colonial America was not immune to alchemy’s charms. The Harvard physics curriculum introduced George Starkey (1627–65) to the art, and upon immigration to England, he won acclaim as an alchemical savant. There he constructed the mythical personality of Eirenaeus Philalethes, a mysterious American adept to whom he alone had access. His pseudonymous works became clinical classics, admired by Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, and Goethe, making Starkey/Philalethes the most widely read American scientist before Benjamin Franklin. Besides telling a practically unknown tale of American alchemy, this book is now the best history of alchemy in English.—Barry Allen, Common Knowledge

The deep scholarship of this book is presented to the nonexpert reader with exemplary lucidity… It should lead to a rethinking of the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution.—Roy Porter, William & Mary Quarterly

The book, which contains a bibliography of the printed works and manuscripts of Starkey, stands out as a major contribution to the understanding of early modern alchemy, as well as a stimulating investigation of seventeenth-century corpuscular theories of matter.—Antonio Clericuzio, Ambix: Journal of the Society for History of Alchemy and Chemistry

Although the reader little familiar with alchemy will find Newman’s study difficult going in places, there is no second guessing its value to historians of varied intellectual interests. The author has composed a unique and probing study in the history of ideas, a work of definitive merit that will likely remain the standard for decades to come.—Gale E. Christianson, American Historical Review

This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary topic… Newman discusses the contortions and convolutions of European alchemical theory and practice with a mastery rarely if ever equaled. And he does it with grace and somehow conveys the assurance that the reader can understand it.Chemical Heritage

Gehennical Fire is not only a well researched study of the life and thought of Starkey, but is also a learned and insightful contribution to the history of early modern alchemy and chemistry.—Antonio Clericuzio, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

Newman has written a definitive and impeccably scholarly account of the short but turbulent life of Starkey.Choice

The deep scholarship of this book is presented to the nonexpert reader with exemplary lucidity. Newman steers a middle course between dismissing and romanticizing alchemy; he establishes Starkey’s importance without overinflated claims on Starkey’s behalf… [His] book should lead to a rethinking of the role of alchemy in the scientific revolution—a term that, finally, in my judgment, Newman does well to retain.—Roy Porter, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine

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