Andreas Libavius - Scientist of the Day
Andreas Libavius, a German chemist, died July 25, 1616, at about 56 years of age. In 1597, Libavius published a book, Alchymia, that, in spite of its title, is seen by many modern chemists as the foundation book of their discipline. Libavius at the time preferred the word “alchemy” to “chemistry” because the latter word had been co-opted by followers of Paracelsus and was a mystical, magical art practiced in secrecy, mostly at the courts of such rulers as Rudolf II. Libavius wanted chemistry to be an academic and a laboratory discipline, divorced from astrology and natural magic, and concerned only with the nature of matter and its combinations, and he wanted it taught openly in the universities, not hidden away at royal courts. Libavius was none too pleased when the first professorship of chemistry was finally established at Marburg in 1609, because the professor appointed was Johannes Hartmann, a Paracelsian and a favorite at the court of Moritz of Hesse. But Libavius’s attitude did ultimately win the day, and although his word “alchymia” was replaced by “chemiatria”, everything else he argued for came to pass, as chemistry came to be established as an open empirical science, based on observations and experiments accessible to every practitioner. We have five of Libavius’s original works in the History of Science Collection, including 1st and 2nd editions of his Alchymia.
Our copy of the second edition of the Alchymia is an especially handsome specimen, with its stamped vellum boards still held closed by a beautiful pair of bronze clasps. The second edition is important because, unlike the 1st (1597) edition, it has a number of woodcuts illustrating an ideal modern chemical laboratory, including a design for the building itself, and plans for all sorts of furnaces and alembics for distillation.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City