Science, Alchemy, and the Great Plague of London

Science, Alchemy, and the Great Plague of London

Science, Alchemy, and the Great Plague of London

Science, Alchemy, and the Great Plague of London


George Starkey, a major contributor to the development of science and medicine, was the only physician in London who possessed a cure for the Great Plague in 1665.This book reviews the history of chemistry, alchemy and medical science in Europe, the tensions between the rational thinkers and the Church on the eve of the Enlightenment, and the achievements of men like Starkey, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.Shelley reviews the development of chemistry and medicine during the Scientific Revolution, with a special focus on the contributions and influence of the American Philosopher George Starkey, concluding with the dramatic account of the events leading up to Starkey's own death by the Plague.Starkey, who often wrote under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes, was a major contributor to the development of the medical sciences. The book also explores his enormous influence over his friend Robert Boyle and, later, on Isaac Newton.Among Starkey's accomplishments was his reputation for being the only physician in London who possessed a cure for the Great Plague in 1665, though the details of his remedy are lost.Further, examining the historical record and the medical evidence, the author presents a new theory for the cause of that dreaded epidemic. Records detailing where and how fast the disease spread, and among what populations, point to poisonous fungal infections of rye. This is the first book to present such a theory based on the primary-source medical evidence. Shelley demonstrates that all of the primary source evidence contradicts the bubonic plague theory, and he shows that all of the epidemiological evidence is consistent with poisoning by Fusarium and ergot infections of rye, a cereal that was once a staple of the poor in Europe. The argument is a medical one, bmiologist of his time.Forewords by Dr. Dan Merkur and Dr. Mary Matossian help to set the work in context.


There is a fiery Stone of Paradise,
So call’d because of its Celestial hew,
Named of Ancient years by Sages wise

Elixir, made of Earth and Heaven new,
Anatically mixt
; strange to relate,
Sought for by many, but found out by few ;
Above vicissitudes of Nature, and by fate
Immortal, like a Body fixt to shew,
Whose penetrative vertue proves a Spirit true

And pass from darkness of Purgatory to light
Of Paradise, in whiteness Elixir of great might

Alchemy constitutes an obscure and commonly misunderstood endeavor that traverses the great scientific and intellectual traditions of Western Civilization; some of the most influential figures in history are included among those who participated in this occluded practice. Concealed within this secret discipline is perhaps the greatest mystery contained in the history of science—the identity of the numinous

For the sake of accuracy, the material quoted is presented as it is found in the original source, unless indicated by [brackets]. Sir George Ripley; in Eirenaeus Philalethes (pseud.), “An Exposition upon Sir George Ripley’s Preface,” Ripley Reviv’d: Or, An Exposition upon Sir George Ripley’s Hermetico-Poetical Works, London, Printed by Tho. Ratcliff and Nat. Thompson, for William Cooper at the Pelican in Little-Britain, 1678, pp. 88–89.

Sir George Ripley; in Philalethes, “An Exposition upon the First Six Gates of Sir George Ripley’s Compound of Alchymie,” Ibid., p. 356.

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