Lawrence M. Principe

Lawrence M. Principe

Drew Professor of the Humanities; Director, Singleton Center for the Study of Premodern Europe

Contact Information

Research Interests: Early modern and late medieval science and technology, especially the history of alchemy/chemistry and issues of science and theology/religion

Education: PhD, History of Science, Johns Hopkins University; PhD, Organic Chemistry, Indiana University

I am broadly interested in late medieval and early modern (1200-1750) science and technology. I have recently finished a long-term project studying the intellectual, institutional, and social developments in chemistry at the Parisian Académie Royale des Sciences, 1666-1730. Many of the results of this project appear in my The Transmutations of Chymistry: Wilhelm Homberg and the Académie Royale des Sciences (Chicago, 2020). My current project is the production of critical editions and English translations of the alchemical works of the fourteenth-century Franciscan friar and prophet John of Rupescissa. I teach classes on Ancient & Medieval Science, the Scientific Revolution, and Science and Religion, as well as specialized graduate seminars such as “Wretched Subjects” (alchemy, astrology, and magic). I also hold an appointment in Chemistry where I teach Organic Chemistry.

My research specialization lies in exploring and understanding the history of chemistry/alchemy. While I am especially active in the study of early modern (1500-1750) chymistry (a term intended to include both what we call “chemistry” and “alchemy” in a time before there existed any clear distinction between the two), I also have a keen interest in the alchemy of the Greek, Islamic, and Medieval periods, and even its revival in the nineteenth century. My broad research goals include resituating alchemy in its due context--intellectual, social, philosophical, technological, religious, and experimental--and displaying its importance and influence in the history of science and in European culture more broadly. I want to understand both how alchemists thought about the world and their work and what they actually did practically on a daily basis. Consequently, my approaches include both the traditional historical methods of textual analysis/contextualization and archival research as well as the more innovative method of replicating alchemical processes in a modern laboratory (using historical apparatus and materials that try to approximate the impure substances ordinarily used in the past) in order more fully to understand the historical texts and their authors’ motivations as well as the practical aims, abilities, and observations of the original practitioners. This dual approach allows for a richer exploration of the interactions between theory and practice, between mind and hand--a feature that characterizes not only alchemy throughout its history but also its descendant, modern chemistry.

I am also committed to bringing the latest and most reliable historical discoveries and understanding to wider audiences outside the academy. Thus, in addition to several scholarly monographs, I have written two books for a general audience, both of which can be used as textbooks: The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction published by Oxford University Press in 2011 (available also in Spanish, Chinese, Swedish, Japanese, Arabic, and Korean), and The Secrets of Alchemy (also available in Chinese, Japanese, and Turkish) published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

Selected Books:

The Transmutations of Chymistry: Wilhelm Homberg and the Académie Royale des Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Alchemy and Chemistry: Breaking up and Making up (Again and Again). Washington, DC: Dibner Library Publications, Smithsonian Institution, 2017).

The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

The Accademia del Cimento and Its European Context, ed. with Marco Beretta and Antonio Clericuzio (Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2009).

New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry, ed. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007).

Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle,  and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. With William R. Newman. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  2002).

The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Selected Articles:

“Circles et intersections: les réseaux des chimistes autour de l’Académie royale des sciences,” Dix-septième siècle 73 (2021):45-57.

“The Changing Visions of Chymistry at the University of Jena: The Two Brendels, Rolfinck, Wedel, and Others,” Ambix 68 (2021):180-97

“The Development of the Basil Valentine Corpus and Biography: Pseudepigraphic Corpora and Paracelsian Ideas,” Early Science and Medicine 24 (2019):549-72.

“The Warfare Thesis,” pp. 6-26 in The Warfare of Science and Religion: The Idea that Wouldn’t Die, eds. Jeff Hardin, Ronald L. Numbers, Ronald Binzley (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2018).

“Texts and Practices: The Promises and Problems of Laboratory Replication and the Chemical Explanation of Early Alchemical Processes,” pp. 159-69 in Greek Alchemy from Late Antiquity to Early Modernity, ed. Efthymios Nicolaidis (Turnout: Brepols, 2018).

“Rêves d’or: La surprenante longévité de l’alchimie au coeur de la chimie,” L’Actualité chimique, no. 424, (December 2017):68-71.

“Chymical Exotica in the Seventeenth Century, or, How to Make the Bologna Stone,” Ambix 63 (2016):118-44.

“From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for Historians of Science,” (with Hjalmar Fors and H. Otto Sibum), Ambix 63 (2016):85-97.

“Scientism and the Religion of Science,” pp. 41-61 in Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, eds. Richard N. Williams and Daniel N. Robinson (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

“The End of Alchemy? The Repudiation and Persistence of Chrysopoeia at the Académie Royale des Sciences in the Eighteenth Century,” Osiris 29 (2014): 96-116.

“Goldsmiths and Chymists: The Activity of Artisans in Alchemical Circles,” pp. 157-179 in Laboratories of Art: Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, ed. Sven Dupré, (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014).

“Sir Kenelm Digby and His Alchemical Circle in 1650s Paris: Newly Discovered Manuscripts,” Ambix 60 (2013):3-24.

“Alchemy Restored,” Isis 102 (2011):305-12.

 “A Revolution Nobody Noticed? Changes in Early Eighteenth Century Chymistry,” pp. 1-22 in New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry, ed. Lawrence M. Principe (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007)

"Some Problems in the Historiography of Alchemy." With William R. Newman. Pp. 385-434 in: Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, ed. William Newman and Anthony Grafton, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

"Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake." With William R. Newman. Early Science and Medicine, 1998, 3:32-65.