Historical chemistry library wows scholars

The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia has acquired one of the most extensive and valuable collections of chemistry texts in the world. It was bought from private collector Robert Neville, now a retired chemist in California, who began amassing rare chemistry volumes as an undergraduate student 60 years ago. The collection has since grown to include more than 6,000 works spanning 6 centuries.

Aside from the historical holdings of the British Museum in London, “I can’t think of anything else that compares with this collection,” says Lawrence Principe, a chemistry historian at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Some of the most important volumes include The Sceptical Chymist (1661) in which Robert Boyle defines the term element, Antoine Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (1789), which gave rise to modern chemistry, and Dmitri Mendeleev’s 1856 master’s thesis from the University of St. Petersburg in Russia.

Principe, serving as a consultant on the acquisition, was astounded to find in Neville’s collection a rare document on alchemy by Isaac Newton—the text’s whereabouts had been a mystery since it was auctioned off in 1936 along with other documents by Newton. The one-page text describes Newton colluding with chemists in their quest for a transmutation agent that would turn base metals into gold. “Newton often spoke disparagingly about the process,” says Principe. “But I knew he was lying. The manuscript shows he was clearly interested.”

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is currently cataloging the volumes, a process that it expects to complete within the next 2 years.

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