October 24, 2017 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
(You’d be forgiven in thinking that I’d forgotten about our various orphaned posts, but I really do intend to wrap up various series – yes, Derleth Country included! Here’s part 2, of 3, in “New England’s Alchemists”); see part 1 here.)
Some figures definitely straddle the border between what we would now delineate into medicine and philosophy, those who appear to have been more interested in ‘practical’ alchemy rather than in the philosophical or spiritual dimension of the art. Connecticut’s Gershom Bulkeley is a prime example of this sort.
Born to a prominent early Massachusetts family, Bulkeley graduated from Harvard in 1658, and took up the ministry. He moved to New London, Connecticut, in 1661 with his wife and young family to serve at the church there, but apparently differences of doctrine made it a poor fit, so he moved a few years later to Wethersfield. He served as a physician for the Connecticut militia during King Philip’s War in 1675-6, during which conflict he was wounded. In the years after that war he moved away from the ministry, focusing on his medical practice and commercial interests, and eventually he was granted an official license to practice medicine by 1686. Even before this point he was being consulted by patients up and down the Connecticut River valley, from Deerfield, Massachusetts to Lyme in Connecticut. While we only have fragmentary evidence of his correspondence and relation to the wider academic world, we do know that Bulkeley was friendly with John Winthrop Jr. What letters survive contain numerous pages of comments, recipes, and formulae copied from mostly medical texts as well as comments as to the effectiveness of the alleged cures and suggestions for their improvement.
Bulkeley is of particular interest because of his participation (at the behest of Governor Winthrop) in some of Connecticut’s witch trials, at least once being consulted as a theologian in a 1670 case. When his former servant Mercy Disborough was accused of witchcraft in 1692, Bulkeley wrote several letters in her defense, vouching for her character and refuting rumors she had fathered a child out of wedlock while in his service. Such a defense from a well-respected member of society proved useful in securing her subsequent exoneration, though rumors against her persisted long after. Bulkeley, in commenting upon witchcraft, made sure to differentiate between the Christian, socially appropriate magic of alchemists and the infernal sorceries of actual witches.
Christian Lodowick, (1660 – 1728)
Born near Leipzig, Christian Lodowick (sometimes called Ludwig) attended the university there, likely graduating in 1678, soon after taking a position of tutor with the nobleman Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, a philosopher and student of Kabbala. Around 1683/4, Lodowick was hired as a ship’s doctor for a voyage to the Colonies. Soon after his arrival there he joined the Quaker community in Newport, Rhode Island, where he started a school. For reasons unclear, by 1692 Lodowick had broken with his fellow Quakers, publishing a book questioning their doctrines, which came to the attention of (and garnered the public support of) Cotton Mather. Mather introduced Lodowick into Boston academic society and he made frequent visits to the city, eventually resettling there around 1694.
In Boston Lodowick worked with the Cambridge physician and chemist James Oliver, conducting medical, chemical, and alchemical research, though the differences between each type of science in this era is minimal, considering one of the popular ingredients for medication (and one often used by Lodowick) was so-called “mummy powder”, an alleged extract from Egyptian mummies. Around this time he published an almanac, which included a lengthy critique of other almanacs which included astrological charts as well as recipes for various medicinal compounds – tobacco ash, for example, was prescribed as means to clean teeth and protect the gums.
Lodowick departed for England the late summer of 1695 but was captured by the French who ransomed him in 1696. Instead of returning to Boston, Lodowick spent another year in England before returning permanently in his native Leipzig, where he taught English, translated books from English into German, and practiced medicine until his death. He remained in correspondence with his friends in Boston, being consulted for his opinions on difficult medical matters. Even years after his departure, he was spoken of as the finest physician that Boston had yet known. His property, including his alchemical books and equipment, was sold at auction after his death.