← Back to August 2017

Alchemy, Chymistry and Chemistry to Obliterative Bronchiolitis, Bronchiolitis Obliterans Syndrome and Chronic Lung Allograft Dysfunction (Obstructive vs Restrictive): It's Just Terminology

links image

Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Alabama Birmingham
Birmingham, AL, USA

The evolution of terminology, organization and classification is an effort to find truth and improve understanding for knowledge. Focusing on the evolution of chemistry as a respected science may help us today as we use or develop new terms reflecting our increasing understanding and not feed into our biases with regard to chronic lung allograft dysfunction. Looking back to the middle ages, alchemy dealt with the study, treatment, refining and production of specific material substances. The prefix "al-", an Arabic definite article, indicates the origin of Alchemy from the Arabic world. The Greek word "chemia" is the root word for Chymistry then later chemistry. Over time, the article "al-" slowly faded away. This may have been due to the philology of the humanists from the Renaissance in an effort to purge the intrusions of "Arabisms," who were believed to be polluting the purity of Greek words. Despite this, many Arabic contributions remain with us today: alcohol, alkali and aluminum just to name a few. Dig deeper into the word, al-iksir - still with us today as elixir. Although, alchemy devolved into chemistry over hundreds of years, the practical chemical processes of distillation for brewing, crystallization and sublimation were improved by Arabic alchemists beyond the rudimentary past prior to the middle ages.

Turning to the 17th century, there were several competing theories in the world of Chymistry or Chemistry. The chemical matter theory believed that all metals were composed of two substances: mercury and sulfur- a medieval dyad theory. Paracelsus, a Swiss Physician and alchemist who pioneered the medical revolution, is considered the father of toxicology, and believed physicians require a solid academic knowledge in chemistry. He added salt (the solid, initially permanent then fragile and separable principle) to sulfur (the combustible principle) and mercury - aka quicksilver (the fluid, volatile and vaporizable principle). This triad is composed of the three primary ingredients of everything, the tria prima making up the Paracelsian Theory. The triad later expanded to the pentad: mercury, sulfur, salt, Earth and phlegm. Other theories including the Water Theory and the ancient, Aristotelian Quarternary Theory of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. All five of these theories were in place and chosen by particular practitioners according to their personal biases. Probably not much different from the distant past or today.

The chemists, better known as chymists of the 17th century, provided important proofs for a particulate matter theory. For example, they would dissolve silver in nitric acid resulting in a clear solution. This clear solution was passed through filter paper. A fine white powder precipitates out of this solution when salt is added to it. When heated in a crucible with a little charcoal, this powder will return the original silver. In summary, when this silver dissolves into a transparent fluid, it must dissolve into such tiny particles that is capable of being passed through the pores of the filter paper without destroying its original identity, supporting the atom or corpuscular theory.

In this era of the Scientific Revolution, chymistry did not have a high intellectual status. Originally, it remained embroiled with the problems of swindlers practicing chrysopoeia, the transmutation of metals into gold. There were also contrived mechanical corpuscular theories that were not too convincing to some. There was a belief that acid particles were pointy and pricked our tongues imparting a sour taste, alkalis were fluffy and sponge-like. Acids and alkali neutralize each other when the pointy acids are stuck in the spongy alkalis. The search for the philosopher stone that substance for the means of metallic transmutation to gold was aggressively pursued, along with the "elixir of life" in the 17th century. Royal and princely courts also had their own alchemists. There were clearly many frauds and con-men throughout the 17th century whose fates were met at the gallows.

Along with its tendency for charlatanism, the low professional status of chymistry existed because it was not part of university education, but instead practiced by workers from a low social status. Chymists were getting their hands dirty and working with stinky materials not much different from the chemists of today. An enhanced status for chymistry came about through professionalization in pedagogical reform. It had to be taught. Textbooks on chymistry proliferated. One of the first chemists at a university was actually hired as a chemical pharmacist. The belief at the time was that many substances from the earth came in the form of toxins and poisons. The role of chemistry was to purify these substances from their toxic admixtures and extract their medicinal essences. Consequently, many of the early chemists were actually pharmacists. The teaching of these topics and practical applications occurred then advanced when the crown-funded garden of medicinal plants matured at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where a professorship in chemistry emerged with publications. Most of these publications focused on practical pharmacological preparations with minimal theory stressing the utility of chemical medicinal preparations with various recipes, thus emphasizing the basic foundations of chemistry developed by alchemists: distillation, crystallization and sublimation.

The status of chemistry was improving and further enhanced when it became part of learned societies professionalization, particularly with the Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris founded by Louis XIV. But all of this came at a price. Chemistry had to be purified or cleansed from its less desirable links with alchemy -a quest for transmutation, which remained a prime breeding ground for fraud. In essence, the Royal Academy pushed alchemy aside as the social status of Chemistry was elevated. Chemists wanted to improve their status with a rational intellectual focus, not the work of mere artisans. The educated social group rose above artisans for being honest and upright whereas alchemy unintentionally encouraged swindling from a longing for gold and fantastic medicines - the cure-all. Artisans who worked with their hands weren't valued in the social hierarchy. Chemists expanded the craft tradition by adding a rational approach, giving it a new intellectual status. Many natural philosophers were either members of the clergy or from the class of the third estate. The third estate were those who worked, not clergy or not nobles. Those educated in the third estate developed a higher status. With focus on understanding and reason, chemists began making a claim that alchemists couldn't, elevating the chemists above the third estate.

It was in the 18th century when the major schism of chemistry from alchemy came from Georg Ernest Stahl. Stahl hypothesized that a common "fiery substance" was released during combustion, respiration and calcination, which was also absorbed when these processes were reversed. This was his theory of rational enterprise confirming the growing separation of chemistry and alchemy. Stahl was trying to discredit alchemy by erecting a rational chemistry to oppose it. Alchemists were more interested in the successful procedures of distillation, crystallization and sublimation, rather than why they worked. Ignoring the why, may have been the most important reason for the bit of magic, mystery and myth of alchemical procedures. Stahl and evolving chemists were questioning why, and wanted to give a reason. Rationalizing processes, rather than accepting what works.

As we refine our understanding of chronic lung allograft dysfunction, we will maintain our composure rationalizing this nemesis of lung transplantation in our quest to improve long-term outcomes. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Share via:

links image    links image    links image    links image