"My old studies in alchemy"
The Alchemist
Public DomainThe Alchemist - Credit: Joseph Leopold Ratinckx

Alchemy is an ancient philosophical tradition that combined what would, in later centuries, resolve into the separate disciplines of chemistry, occultism and metallurgy. Its main objectives were to transmute base metals into gold or silver and to discover the elixir of life. During the early seventeenth century, alchemists enjoyed high standing and monarchs would employ them as scientific consultants. Though the philosopher’s stone and elixir of life remained pipe dreams and occultist practices later became associated with charlatanism, the discoveries of alchemists paved the way for modern science. Early modern proponents included Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Elias Ashmole.


Allegorical alchemic imagery from Johann Conrad Barchusen's
Public DomainAllegorical alchemic imagery from Johann Conrad Barchusen's "Elementa chemiae" (1718) - Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Hawthorne had earlier written on the theme of alchemy in his celebrated short story, ‘The Birthmark’ (1843), which tells of a young scientist who becomes dangerously obsessed with removing his beautiful wife’s one bar to perfection. Read it here