July 8, 2002
Volume 80, Number 27
CENEAR 80 27 pp. 30-32
ISSN 0009-2347


Chemical Heritage Foundation gets addition to prized collection from Roy Eddleman


Enter an office or lab of a senior academic chemist and, often as not, you'll find valued antiques of the research enterprise. Holding on to balances long since outdated or to glassware designed in the 1900s provides an important link to the past for chemists. Collecting such relics seems to be in their blood.

AT WORK The central character in David Teniers the Younger's "Alchemist in His Workshop"--dated around 1650--is distracted from his work.

For a small group of chemists, collecting art has become part of their means of remembering the past. Roy T. Eddleman is one such chemist. Eddleman, chief executive officer and founder of Spectrum Laboratories, Rancho Dominguez, Calif., has recently contributed his collection of alchemical art--nearly 50 paintings and engravings--to the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The collection joins the Chester G. Fisher collection, which contains pieces of the same style and is already housed at CHF in Philadelphia (C&EN, July 31, 2000, page 48). The combined set of about 100 paintings represents one of the largest collection of alchemical art in the world.

Born in Kannapolis, N.C., in 1940, Eddleman became interested in chemistry at a young age, setting up a lab in the basement of his home when he was in sixth grade. He initially attended the University of North Carolina but left during his second year to move to California. Although he planned to complete his chemical studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, he became enamored with the commercial and entrepreneurial side of chemistry that he experienced when he worked as an analytical chemist at CalBiochem in Los Angeles, and he never returned to college.

IN LESS THAN 10 years, Eddleman had left CalBiochem and founded Spectrum Medical Industries, now known as Spectrum Laboratories. At the same time he started his company, he also began building his art collection.

Eddleman modeled his collection after another chemical entrepreneur and collector of alchemical art, Chester G. Fisher, founder of Fisher Scientific. Eddleman's interest in early chemical scenes was sparked at a young age and was enhanced by the Fisher-owned Eimer & Amend laboratory supply catalog, which included reproductions of paintings from Fisher's alchemical collection for purchase. Fisher died in 1965, and his collection was donated to CHF in 2000 by James G. Fisher, Chester's son, and Paul M. Montrone, Fisher Scientific CEO.

Another influence on Eddleman's developing collection was Alfred R. Bader. A chemist by training, Bader earned a Ph.D. before cofounding the Aldrich Chemical Co. in the 1950s. He left what had become Sigma-Aldrich in 1992 to focus solely on his art collection. He and Eddleman have interacted many times over the years.

DISORDER The alchemist in Richard Brakenburg's 17th- century "Alchemist's Workshop with Children Playing" is consumed by his work, while his wife worries about the effect of his obsession on their children.
For Eddleman, collecting alchemical art is important because it illustrates the difficulty, risk, allure, and potential folly of alchemy as well as the often forgotten, real science aspect of it. He also believes that it gives people a view of the business of chemistry.

The Eddleman and Fisher collection includes paintings that span more than 200 years. The alchemy paintings originated from the Netherlands region, and most were done during the 17th and 18th centuries, although there are a few from the 19th century. The collection is classified as genre painting--meaning a style or form of painting that shows typical events or settings from day-to-day life familiar to the artist and his clientele. In particular, these paintings show the general environment that someone who practiced alchemy would be found in, rather than a specific representation of an alchemist or physician and his workshop.

The genre paintings "give us a picture of what people thought of alchemists at the time," notes Lloyd DeWitt, Charles C. Price Fellow at CHF and doctoral student in art history at the University of Maryland. He explains that they are not portraits, but rather they are representations. "The truth about the alchemist's image was in the details."

In the 17th century, alchemy was in its heyday. During that time, the term alchemy included both the ancient, nonscientific alchemy and the scientific chemistry we know today. One of the main pursuits of the alchemist was to discover how to make the philosopher's stone, a theoretical material agent of transmutation--the act of turning common metals such as iron, lead, or tin into precious metals, specifically silver or gold.

MODERN SCIENCE tells us that transmutation is not chemically possible, but alchemists of that period believed that this conversion could take place under the right conditions and with the help of the philosopher's stone. After all, miners and refiners knew for hundreds of years that lead ore almost always contained some silver and that silver ore was almost always contaminated with gold--indicating a natural process where metals developed over time into more precious metals.

It wasn't until early in the 18th century that alchemy and chemistry split. The emergence of chemistry as an empirical science is reflected in the genre paintings of the Eddleman and Fisher collection.

DUTCH TREAT The shift in alchemy’s image is clear in Thomas Wijck’s 17th-century painting, “The Alchemist,” which shows the alchemist going about his scholarly work while his wife tends to the children.
The earliest of the paintings, done in the early to mid-17th century, typically depict the alchemist as a man who has wasted all of his money in pursuit of the philosopher's stone--much to the dismay of his wife. The paintings often include the alchemist's children, who look on as their father watches over his doomed experiments.

Paintings from 17th-century artists such as David Teniers the Younger (1610–90), Thomas Wijck (1616–77), and Richard Brakenburg (1650–1702) are included in the collection. The work of this group, along with earlier paintings from Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525–69), constitute the origins of alchemy genre paintings.

As the 17th century progressed, so did the image of the alchemist depicted in the paintings. Specifically, in works by Teniers and Wijck, the scenes began to be more ordered and more scholarly. The figures are shown to be in control of their experiments, often surrounded by books, indicating the transition from the pursuer of the philosopher's stone to the more scientific chemist, joining the ranks of other respected scientific disciplines.

"The paintings from the 18th century are sentimental," DeWitt explains. The mood of these paintings is different from their earlier counterparts.

Another important development that occurred during this period was the acceptance of chemical methods in medicine. Prior to this, iatrochemists--alchemists who dabbled in the preparation of medicines--were considered poorly trained quacks, and the medicines they synthesized were thought to be poisons. But as the 17th century came to a close, the medical world began to see the benefits of chemistry.

As a reflection of this, most of the works in the collection from this period depict physicians who practiced alchemy. This is clear from inspection of the details of the art.

Two prominent artists of this period--Franz Christoph Janneck (1703–61) and Justus Juncker (1703–67)--portray their central character, the physician, in opposing ways. Janneck provides a critical view of a physician, while Juncker paints a more positive image. These paintings show the changing image of chemistry in medicine. Janneck illustrates the old view, while Juncker's work reflects the shift in attitude of physicians who employed chemical practices.

With the 19th century came a romantic view of alchemy that clearly associated it with the occult. Works from François-Marius Granet (1775–1849), Charles Meer Webb (1830–95), and Edward Allen Schmidt (active 1868–77) all include details that would never have been seen in an alchemist's workshop. For example, there are several examples of distillation glassware that could not have been made then (or now for that matter), as well as an example of an alchemist placing a scorpion into a boiling crucible as part of his metallurgy work, a practice known not to have happened.

As CHF celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, it also celebrates the history of chemistry with its Eddleman and Fisher art collection. The paintings are on display at CHF's Interim Gallery of the Eddleman Research Museum for all to enjoy.


Mainstream Alchemy

8027scit3.potterWhether they've read the books, seen the movie, or just caught some of the buzz, most people have heard of Harry Potter. What many people may have missed is how the young wizard, a creation of novelist J. K. Rowling, has brought the early study of chemistry--or alchemy--to the masses.

It's clear from the title of the first book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (retitled for American audiences as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"), that alchemy is involved. The philosopher's stone is the alchemist's theoretical material agent of transmutation: the act of turning common metal into silver or gold.

The plot of the book requires Potter to ultimately protect part of the stone, originally prepared by Nicolas Flamel.

According to research done by Lawrence M. Principe, Othmer Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and professor of the history of science, medicine, and technology at Johns Hopkins University, Flamel is not just a figment of Rowling's imagination. The tale of Flamel's preparation of the stone was a common 17th-century story.

As the tale goes, Flamel, a 14th-century notary living in Paris, spent many years trying to crack the code of an ancient book by "Abraham the Jew" describing the stone's preparation. Eventually successful, he and his wife, Pernelle, used the stone to transmute metals such as mercury into gold. From their riches, they founded and endowed many churches and hospitals. The story was later embellished in the 18th and 19th centuries to include the Flamels' using the stone to defy death and enjoy life for hundreds of years.

In addition to tracking down the 17th-century tale, Principe also uncovered the elements of truth behind it. As it turns out, an actual notary named Nicolas Flamel was born in 1330 and lived in Paris.

Flamel had acquired some wealth, which he and his wife, Pernelle, used to endow several churches and charitable institutions. Principe found no evidence that Flamel or his wife ever studied alchemy. Their acquired wealth was likely due to prudent speculation in real estate and to money Pernelle brought to the marriage, according to Principe.

Records indicate that Flamel died in 1418, but his legend is still alive and strong--thanks in part to Rowling's clever writings.


A short book has been published detailing the Eddleman and Fisher alchemy art collection housed at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. "Transmutations: Alchemy in Art," written by Lloyd DeWitt and Lawrence M. Principe, is available through CHF. Visit for details.

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society