Thomas Henshaw and Sir Robert Paston's pursuit of the red elixir + Alchemy: An early collaboration between fellows of the Royal-Society Academic Article uri icon


  • The problems involved in using Baconian categories to understand the great instauration Bacon hoped to foster are now well known. Natural philosophers were, for Bacon, empiricists, who tested their observations of nature openly, and their foes were superstitious dogmatists, who speculated by conjuring hypotheses in secret. As Joseph Agassi has wryly remarked, once a person, historian or not, accepts a division of mankind into open-minded and closed-minded, he almost invariably finds himself on the right side.1We now appreciate how broad even the Royal Society's conception of natural philosophy was, given the hermetic interests of many of its early members.2 By examining an early collaborative effort of Thomas Henshaw and Sir Robert Paston, who were both respected Fellows of the Royal Society as well as chemical alchemists or chemical philosophers following a rigorous, quantitative programme of experimentation, this essay will confirm that the actual practice of natural philosophy was broad indeed, and hardly revolutionary.3 Our view of these shadowy figures is usually obscured by the backdrop against which they are set, a backdrop that was created as the category of natural magic disappeared, with part becoming science and the rest being discarded as superstition. The evidence to be examined includes an alchemical treatise in the British Library (Sloane 2222) and Henshaw's correspondence discussing it. Although the status of alchemy certainly changed during the course of the seventeenth century, it did so because more rigorous experimentation proved the alchemist's claims to be unverifiable, not because any underlying theories had been altered. The letters, especially, illustrate this process and also shed light on the differences between the closed world of alchemy and the more open culture of science then emerging.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Dickson, D. R.

citation count

  • 1

publication date

  • January 1997