Probably before the end of the fourteenth century there was born a man who must be considered the father of modern pharmaceutical chemistry. This was Basil Valentine, the German Benedictine monk, whose best known work is the “The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony.” Its influence can be best appreciated from the fact that it introduced the use of antimony into medicine definitely, and that substance continued to be used for centuries, so that it was not until practically our own generation that the true limitations of its usefulness were found. Valentine described the process of making muriatic acid, which he called the spirit of salt, and taught how to obtain alcohol in concentrated form. Altogether, this monk-alchemist, who was really the first of the chemists, left twenty-three treatises, some of them good-sized books, on various subjects in chemistry. It does not look, then, as though chemistry was much neglected during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

One step more in the history remains to be taken, which brings us down to a man who is more familiar to modern physicians–Paracelsus. Paracelsus received his education just at the beginning of the sixteenth century, before the Reformation began. He was not a man, as those who know his character will thoroughly appreciate, to confess that he had received much assistance from others. He does mention, however, that he was helped in his chemical studies by the Abbot Trithemius, of Spanheim; by Bishop Scheit, of Stettbach; by Bishop Erhardt, of Lavanthol; by Bishop Nicholas, of Hippon; and by Bishop Matthew Schacht.

We have been able to follow, then, the development of chemistry during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries down to the time of the Reformation, and find nowhere any lessening of the ardor for chemical studies, though most of the great names in the science continue to be, as they were before the decree was issued, those of distinguished ecclesiastics. John [XXII]’s decree, then, was neither intended to hamper the development of chemistry, nor did it accidentally prevent those who were most closely in touch with the ecclesiastical authorities from pursuing their studies. Those, of course, who knew anything of the character of the author, would not expect it to interfere with the true progress of science. As we shall see in the next chapter, Pope John XXII. was really one of the most liberal patrons of education and of science in history.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Full text of “The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony”


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