‘John Dee and Alchemy’
28 May 2005, Birkbeck College, London
The spring meeting of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry was held on 28 May 2005 at the Department of English, Birkbeck College, Russell Square, London. This building previously housed the Royal Institute for Chemistry and Dr Stephen Clucas, who was chairing the meeting, began the day by drawing attention to some of the building’s interesting architectural features and their links to chemistry.
The first paper entitled ‘Monas Hieroglyphica and the Alchemical Thread of John Dee’s Career’ was given by Nicholas H. Clulee of Frostburg State University. He began by highlighting how alchemy was a significant cultural current in the sixteenth century and how Dee was an important part of this. The Monas Hieroglyphica of 1564 has often been seen as the major expression of Dee’s engagement with alchemy, but his involvement with the art did not begin and end in 1564. He avidly collected and studied alchemical works from the ‘classics’ to the most up-to-date Paracelsian literature. He attempted to master the art of alchemy through experimental practice. He sought to transcend the limits of human learning with the instruction of the angels in Adam’s true alchemy. Despite the frustration of his loftiest aspirations, his most enduring legacy was his integration of alchemy with his natural philosophy in the Monas Hieroglyphica. The Monas Hieroglyphica was a daring and inventive proposal for a symbolic language that had the power to reveal the divine plan of creation, to explain the workings of the material world in the principles of alchemy, and to assist the mystic ascent of the soul. Here alchemy finds a place within his conviction of the mathematical nature of divine creation and the unity of the heavens and the earth. The cosmos may be understood by mastering the language of the geometrical cabala of the real which speaks the truths of alchemy, astronomy, and permits the magus to attain the exalted status of adept. In the alchemical dimension of the Monas, Dee participated in an important new dimension taken by alchemy in the Renaissance, and provided one foundation for the spiritual idea of alchemy.
The second paper, ‘John Dee and his reading of Voarchadumia’ was given by Hilde Norrgrén, an independent scholar from Norway. John Dee’s marginalia in Pantheus’s Voarchadumia are an interesting source of information about the development of Dee’s scientific ideas in the period between Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) andMonas Hieroglyphica (1564). In reading the book Dee has systematically compared the text with Pantheus’s earlier work Ars Metallicæ and noted any differences between the two largely identical works. Therefore most of Dee’s notations are not indications of his own interests, as previously assumed. Only the marginalia that evade this picture can be taken to express Dee’s own views. These marginalia, probably written in 1559, bear evidence that at this time Dee already had a strong interest in kabbalistic methods as a means of gaining knowledge about natural substances. Kabbalistic speculation was to be central to Dee’s thought in Monas Hieroglyphica, and has previously been taken to indicate a dramatic change in Dee’s scientific outlook, towards a spiritual quest. In his marginalia in Voarchadumia, however, Dee used kabbala to gain information on wholly material, non-spiritual matters. The abundant use of the symbol of the hieroglyphic monad in the marginalia further provides a source of insight into the alchemical import of the symbol, five years before the publication of Monas Hieroglyphica.
After lunch, Peter J. Forshaw of Birkbeck College, University of London, delivered his paper ‘The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica’. He began by quoting Brian Vickers who once described John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica as “possibly the most obscure work ever written by an Englishman”, asking whether there were even ten references to it in the seventeenth century. The paper considered Dee’s reputation as an alchemist, in particular the reception of his Monas Hieroglyphica, in Latin, French and German works published in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It examined two themes: firstly, discussion of the Monas in the context of Kabbalistic calculations and Pythagorean symbolic numbers; secondly, references to, and appropriations of, the hieroglyphic monad in the context of chemical notation. It shows how Dee’s work was read by alchemists influenced by Trithemius’s exposition of the Emerald Tablet, including major promulgators of Paracelsian thought like Gerhard Dorn, Oswald Croll, Joseph Duchesne, and Heinrich Khunrath. The paper also noted how the Monas appealed to purveyors of both physical-chemistry and more theosophical forms of alchemy, such as the Rosicrucian Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz. It concluded with a discussion of the somewhat surprising approval of Dee’s enigmatic work from one so utterly antagonistic to Paracelsian and Rosicrucian thought, the chemist Andreas Libavius, who openly admitted to using the hieroglyphic monad as the basis for the ground plan for his ideal laboratory.
The final paper was given by Penny Bayer, an independent scholar, and was entitled ‘Lady Margaret Clifford’s alchemical receipt book and the John Dee Circle’. Penny’s work is the first detailed analysis of “Lady Margaret Clifford’s Alchemical Receipt Book”, which is held in the Cumbrian Record Office. It examines the basis for the receipt book’s association with Lady Margaret Clifford (1560-1616), placing particular emphasis on the connections in the manuscript book with the John Dee circle. After a brief introduction to the manuscript, the external evidence for its association with Lady Margaret was described. This was followed by a discussion of the internal evidence within the manuscript which suggests links with the John Dee circle, in several ways – by source of receipts, signs of ownership and possible authorship, and access to Paracelsian books. Penny also highlighted Lady Margaret’s links with the circle of Edward Kelley and her connections with two Elizabethan courtiers sent to check on him during his exile in Prague. Finally Lady Margaret’s connections with John Dee were examined and it was suggested that she had the opportunity to obtain receipts and to access library material for the manuscript during her visit to Dee’s Mortlake home in 1593 and through intermediaries with Dee at Manchester 1597-1600. A hypothesis for one of the main hands was put forward: that the alchemist-vicar Christopher Taylour compiled the receipt book for Lady Margaret by liaising on her behalf with members of the Dee-Kelley circle.
The meeting concluded with a short talk by Bill Griffith of Imperial College, London on Dee’s connections with Mortlake and notably the church of St Mary the Virgin, which was adjacent to his home. Although Dee’s house no longer exists, he is buried in an unmarked grave just in front of St Mary the Virgin’s high altar, while a chest that reputedly belonged to him is also housed in the church, although somewhat out of sight. Following the previous discussion of the alchemical aspects of Dee’s work, these comments conveyed a sense of the environment with which Dee would have been very familiar and provided a fitting end to the meeting.
The four papers delivered at the meeting will be published in Ambix, the journal for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, in November 2005. Details on subscribing to the journal can be found on www.ambix.org
‘History of Forensic Chemistry’
26 October 2005, Royal Institution, London
On 26 October 2005 a joint meeting was held between the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group and the Royal Institution on “The History of Forensic Chemistry”. This was the final history of science meeting to be held at the Royal Institution before it closed for renovation.
The first paper was given by Dr Ian Burney, Wellcome Trust Research Lecturer at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Manchester University. The paper was based on his forthcoming book, Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination, which examines the history of criminal poisoning and the varied social, cultural, and scientific responses to the threat that it represented. By focusing on poison as an agent of crime, in his paper Dr Burney was able to explore a richly textured historical example of the application of medical and scientific expertise to matters of criminal law. However, examining the crime of poisoning in Victorian Britain can also lead one into analytical areas that exceed the expected limits of medico-legal expertise, and in particular to points of unstable convergence between differing imaginative realms. Consequently, Dr Burney used his paper to highlight the theme of the ‘imagination’ as a historical category with specific resonances in Victorian discussions of poisoning.
Dr Burney began with some definitional observations which were aimed at setting poison, expert detection and the imagination in the same analytical frame. In his opinion, each of these keywords connects in some way to the notion of absence. Definitions of imagination commonly highlight its relationship to things that are ‘not present to the senses’. For example, in the Oxford English Dictionary it is described as ‘that faculty of the mind by which are formed images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses’. This relates to poisoning in a broader cultural sense, since criminal poisoning was viewed as a form of violence that operated beneath the threshold of perceptible experience. Dr Burney went on to discuss how the disclosure of things not immediately present to the senses was the hallmark of poison detection and explored how this was central to a more limited legal conception of expert testimony.
In this context, it was the poison detective – the toxicologist – who emerged as the leading representative of the growing field of nineteenth-century medico-legal expertise. Using contemporary examples, Dr Burney argued how the toxicologist acted as a mediator between the insensible and the sensible, with his task being to demonstrate the presence of things not evident to others. By moving between the different domains of the ‘imagination’ within which Victorian poisoning resonated, Dr Burney went on to show how public, legal and scientific conceptualizations overlapped to produce poisoning both as an object of fascination and as an object of knowledge.
The second paper was given by Dr Bob Flanagan, Consultant Clinical Scientist at the Medical Toxicology Unit, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital Trust, London and Dr Katherine D. Watson, a historian based at Oxford Brookes University, who focuses on topics where medicine, crime and the law intersect. Entitled “A Petition to Mr Peel: Gideon Mantell and the Case of Hannah Russell”, the paper revisited a once famous early-nineteenth century poisoning case where the science of toxicology was used to persuade Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, to grant a pardon. Hannah Russell was accused of poisoning her husband Ben Russell with arsenic, in collusion with her lodger, Daniel Leaney, on 7 May 1826. After describing the circumstances of the crime, the paper looked at the autopsy and chemical tests that were subsequently performed. Following the trial held at Lewes Summer Assizes in 1826, both Hannah and Dan were found guilty and were sentenced to death.
However, at this point, the surgeon Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852), who lived next door to the Lewes Courthouse, intervened. Mantell, who practised as a surgeon in Lewes from 1805 to 1833, is best known as the fossil hunter who described the Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. Mantell voiced his objections to the scientific evidence presented at the trial, citing three areas of inaccuracy. Firstly, he argued that as the autopsy had been conducted three days after death its findings were equivocal and did not prove death due to arsenic. Secondly, he considered that the chemical tests performed were inadequate to prove that there was arsenic in the deceased’s stomach. Thirdly, and most importantly, he claimed that the short time frame in which the death occurred was incompatible with acute arsenic poisoning. On this point he cited the opinions of various experts in chemistry, including Astley Cooper, Benjamin Brodie and William Brande, who apparently agreed that no dose of arsenic could have occasioned death in a period of just three hours.
As a result of his findings Mantell petitioned the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, for a pardon for Hannah Russell. He claimed that her husband’s death was due to angina pectoris not arsenic poisoning. Peel granted Hannah a full pardon on 26 February 1827, although this reprieve was too late for Dan Leaney, who had been executed seven days after the trial. However despite Mantell’s success at securing the pardon, it appears that his claim that Ben Russell’s death was not due to arsenic poisoning was incorrect. Both Sir Robert Christison and Alfred Swaine Taylor later refuted Mantell’s claims that death from arsenic poisoning could not occur in under three hours and criticised his actions, although they did not mention him by name. Nevertheless, the inaccuracy of Mantell’s claims does not prove that Hannah Russell was a murderer and the speakers left the audience to decide for themselves on her guilt.
The third paper was given by Robin Keeley of the Police Forensic Laboratory and was entitled “On the Washing Away of Wrongs: A Brief History of Forensic Science”. The speaker began with a short summary of the earliest work in forensic science. The first key work in this area was The Washing Away of Wrongs, written by the lawyer Sung Tzhu in Imperial China in 1247. In this text the author used examples from his daily activities to illustrate the key points of forensic science, placing an emphasis on the importance of intelligent observation and of asking the right questions. Despite the age of the text, the speaker argued that much of its content still deserved a place in modern forensic science textbooks.
Having briefly mentioned other key developments in the history of forensic science, Robin Keeley then focused on the subject during the twentieth century when the concept of a separate forensic science laboratory developed. The first such laboratories appeared in the 1920s in Lyon, Zurich and Berlin and were housed in medico-legal institutes within European Universities. However, the Metropolitan Police’s forensic science laboratory was not set up until the 1930s and initially there was considerable scepticism about its usefulness. The laboratory originated in the work of Cyril Cuthbert, who, having become interested during his earlier studies in the possible applications of science to criminal detection, carried out forensic investigations in his spare time while working as a police officer. Following the successful use of Cuthbert’s work in a trial, an official forensic science laboratory was set up at Hendon in 1935. This laboratory also had a teaching purpose, as new police constables were supposed to attend a course on forensic science there. However this function did not continue and in the mid 1950s the laboratory transferred to Lambeth, from where it continues to operate.
Based on his own experiences, Robin Keeley then provided a fascinating insight into the daily activities of an employee of the Police Forensic Laboratory. Early in his career he operated some of the new technology that transformed forensic work, being in charge of the Metropolitan Police Force’s first scanning electron microscope. Later activities included making a video about using explosives in safe-breaking and analysing ammunition from major gun crimes. This type of work typifies forensic science as it is today, that is essentially non-medical and practised in laboratories removed from universities.
The meeting concluded with a paper by Professor John Emsley of Cambridge University, entitled “Elements of Murder: the Dark Side of the Periodic Table”. This paper was based on his recent book The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison. Professor Emsley began by highlighting how there are some chemical elements that are inherently toxic. For centuries these elements insidiously affected human affairs by their widespread use, killing scientists, poets, explorers, emperors, kings, and even popes. Meanwhile less exalted individuals deliberately used them with murder in mind and, until chemical analysis became part of forensic investigation, they often escaped detection.
Arsenic, antimony, mercury, lead and thallium are the most infamous of these poisonous elements and Professor Emsley examined these in turn during his paper. As it is now possible to understand how these elements behave in the body, one can reassess some famous cases more objectively. Professor Emsley began by examining the case of Sir Thomas Overbury. Whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London, Overbury’s food was poisoned on various occasions using different agents on the instruction of Frances Howard. The case is particularly interesting as Howard later confessed to her actions and listed the poisons she had considered using. However, while it is possible to relate the symptoms of the victim to the poison, this approach is too subjective and Overbury’s death in the Tower in 1613 can not be ascribed with any certainty to poison. Nevertheless, analysts are now in a position to re-examine remains and discover that some deaths were indeed caused by these toxic elements. For example, it has been shown that Pope Gregory II, who died in 1048, was poisoned by lead in his wine and it is now possible to point the finger of suspicion at the man who carried out the crime.
The use of forensic analysis slowly developed as chemistry emerged as a science. Professor Emsley then traced its progress through a series of famous poisoning cases, such as that of Mary Blandy in the eighteenth century, and John Bodle in the early nineteenth century, until eventually it is now an almost invincible weapon in the hands of the prosecution. Happily there are few cases today of criminal poisoning by elements such as arsenic, antimony and mercury because they are almost impossible for a would-be murderer to obtain.
Professor Emsley concluded by looking at specific cases where developments in forensic analysis led to evidence that was presented to the jury. However, the case of Marie Besnard, accused of murdering various members of her family in France during the 1940s, showed how even the most up-to-date techniques could be defeated in the hands of a skilled defence lawyer. Nevertheless, other examples, such as the case of Marcus Marymont (1958), did result in a successful prosecution. Marymont, who was accused of murdering his wife, was found guilty when forensic tests on his wife’s hair revealed evidence of his previous failed attempts at poisoning her with arsenic.