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Thousands of years ago people valued gold as a rare and beautiful substance. They also understood that gold had a unique ability to resist decay and corrosion. Since there was no known acid or other sub­stance that could damage gold they thought that gold had a quality of performance that could be transmitted to humans. Therefore, every medicine that fought ageing contained gold as an essential ingredient and doctors urged people to drink from gold cups to prolong life.

This universal desire for gold made alchemy a formal discipline in the first century A.D. It first appeared among Greek scholars, then spread to eastern Mediterranean countries, and finally to Spain and Italy in the 12th century. Though the attempts to produce gold from other substances was the original and central purpose of alchemy, a number of physician-alchemists in Europe in the Middle Ages tried to produce medicines that were not dependent on gold or related to it.

They worked to produce medicines and spirits from raw materials, such as herbs, and in this way improved methods of separating ele­ments by distillation. For example, as early as the 13th century, Thaddeus of Florence identified the medical benefits of alcohol distillates taken internally and applied locally. Paracelsus (1493-1541), the Ger­man-Swiss physician and alchemist, was the first person to unite med­icine with chemistry through his use of remedies that contained mer­cury, sulphur, iron, and copper sulphate. This led to steam distillation and improved equipment.

The development of apparatus and the extensive efforts to break down or distil substances laid the foundation for modern chemistry, but as true science began to evolve during the Renaissance, the study of alchemy blocked the birth of modern chemistry. Some scientists tried to lead people toward reliance on empirical evidence (that is, what can actually be observed and/or measured), but the idea of four essential elements (earth, air, fire, and water) lived on and there was no recognition that these four substances are made up of a combina­tion of basic elements.


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