The Society for the Study of Alchemy & Early Chemistry (to give the present society its original title) was founded in November 1935 when a Committee (later Council) was formed and advertised widely in the national press during the following month. Although the society apparently held no open meeting until one at University College London in November 1936, papers were solicited and accepted for delivery at the inaugural meeting and the launch of the journal Ambix in 1937.
The 1920s and 1930s were decades in which there was intense interest in anthropology and archaeology, and in the historical cultures of Egypt, Greece, India and China. At least seven of the original Council of twelve of the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry had interests in anthropology and early cultures. The physical chemist, J. R. Partington, published the archaeologically-informed Origins and Development of Applied Chemistry in 1936 as well as a tremendously influential Short History of Chemistry in the following year; he had also drawn attention to Chinese alchemy in several articles published in Nature. The organic chemist John Read published his entertaining Prelude to Chemistry in 1936, while in Germany the scholar Julius Ruska had been actively revealing details of Persian and Arabic chemical and mineralogical knowledge since the 1920s. His findings on alchemy were summarised in an edition of the Turba Philosophorum in 1931. Meanwhile, Eric Holmyard, a chemistry science teacher at Clifton College who had taught himself Arabic, published a book on Avicenna in 1927 and many historical books such as the popular Makers of Chemistry (1933). Most importantly of all, the chemist Frank Sherwood Taylor, who became Partington’s colleague in the chemistry department of Queen Mary College, published an exciting essay on Greek alchemy in the Journal of Hellenic Studies in 1930. This was capped in 1934 when the American academic A. J. Hopkins produced his Alchemy Child of Greek Philosophy. A year later, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung began to give his first lectures on the psychological interpretation of alchemy.
It seems clear, then, that November 1935 was the right moment for Partington, McKie and Taylor to create a society to study and interpret alchemy and early chemistry. Its object would be “the study of alchemy and early chemistry in their scientific and historical aspects, and the publication of relevant material”. The emphasis on scientific aspects was obviously to deter the interests of the occultists who had largely predominated in the membership of an earlier Alchemical Society that had flourished between 1912 and 1914. Partington, SHAC’s first Chairman, was the driving force behind the launch of the Society’s journal Ambix in May 1937. Its publication was initially heavily subsidised by Imperial Chemical Industries. Unfortunately, like the earlier Alchemical Society, the Society for the History of Alchemy & Early Chemistry was forced to close down for the duration of the Second World War. But unlike the earlier society, Partington, McKie and Taylor were successful in re-establishing it in 1946 despite the post-war austerity that lasted until the 1950s. The second volume of Ambix, which had begun to appear in 1938, was completed in 1946. It was not until Desmond Geoghegan became its Editor in 1956 that Ambix began to extend its readership and its period of historical coverage to the time of Dalton and the nineteenth century. This reflected a change of focus in historiography as younger scholars moved away from alchemy to study the chemical revolution and its aftermath. In addition a growing body of work on the development of atomism and of organic chemistry was emerging. Under the editorship of W. H. Brock from 1956 onwards the implicit time limit of 1850 was completely removed – a decision that was ratified by SHAC’s Council in 1975 when the Society was renamed The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry.
Since then, through its regular meetings and through the papers published in Ambix, SHAC has become the vehicle for high-quality research in all aspects of the history of alchemy and chemistry, including the chemical industry.
by Professor William Brock