Review: Mark Morrisson’s “Modern Alchemy”

(The following is my review of Mark Morrisson’s Modern Alchemy. The final version was published in Aries 11.1).

In 1901 physicist Ernest Rutherford and chemist Frederick Soddy, tucked away in a laboratory at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, were struck with amazement as they watched the element thorium transform into an inert gas. Soddy, exclaiming that they had witnessed nothing less than transmutation, was warned by his more temperate colleague: “For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists”.

Alchemy would, however, be invoked frequently during the decades to come; not with reference to obscure occultists in the secret vaults of hermetic societies, but in connection to new discoveries concerning radioactive decay. Indeed, in its the early decades, what would become nuclear physics was commonly labelled “modern alchemy”. The crucible and athanor had been replaced by cloud chambers, spectroscopes, and ionization chambers,  but there was a nagging feeling that the ancient and modern alchemists ultimately shared the same goal: the transmutation of elements.

Mark Morrisson’s imaginative and original book documents how this perception came about. He shows that alchemy was not only a catchy populist metaphor, conveniently fit for drawing attention to exiting new discoveries in radio-chemistry. Rather, “modern alchemy” was a discourse that destabilized borders between science and occultism in the early 20th century, even relating both to the sphere of economy by raising concerns about the future of the gold standard if modern alchemists would succeed in transmuting base metals into gold. In the course of exploring these intriguing connections the book introduces a curious mix of dramatis personae: we meet celebrated chemists like Soddy and William Ramsay, a set of occultists including Mary-Ann Atwood, A. E. Waite, Crowley, Leadbeater and Besant, the Nobel prize winning physicist Ernest Rutherford, novelist H. G. Wells, science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback, and a number of other people drawn from the realms of economics, science-fiction literature, politics, occultism and science.

After setting the scene in the introduction with a cursory overview of the occult revival, with mesmerism, spiritualism, theosophy, and the Rosicrucian and hermetic societies, Morrisson devotes the first chapter to occultist conceptions of alchemy at the fin de siècle. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn housed several occultists who took an active interest in alchemy, including W. W. Westcott, W. A. Ayton and A. E. Waite. Ayton was generally considered the practical expert within the society, while the translations and new editions of classical alchemical treatises published by Westcott and Waite stimulated a wider interest in alchemy.

Despite the influx of original material Morrisson notes that the interpretation of alchemy most wide-spread in the Golden Dawn followed that of Mary-Ann Atwood’s 1850 Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. This book popularised the idea that alchemy had not been about transmuting metals at all: the language of the alchemists had been symbolic discourse veiling a more esoteric secret concerning the transmutation of the alchemist’s own soul. This “spiritual alchemy” should not be confused with vulgar chemistry. Morrisson suggests that the strategy of withdrawing alchemy from worldly science had been necessary after the Daltonian revolution in chemistry. The new orthodoxy that the elements were made up by indivisible atoms had rendered the alchemical dream of transmutation of elements nothing more than a delusion built on an obsolete and fallacious theory of nature’s workings.

It was precisely this orthodoxy which was contested by the “modern alchemists” of radio-chemistry and early atomic physics. By demonstrating how the new discoveries in the science of radioactivity were carefully monitored by occultists, Morrisson traces a shift in the perception of alchemy in occultism at the turn of the century, away from the spiritual alchemy thesis towards a reconsideration of the material basis of the art. On this basis Morrisson convincingly distinguishes a pre- and a post-radiation conception of alchemy.

Morrisson notes that a broader re-appreciation of science took place within occultism at this time, from Annie Besant’s columns in the theosophical periodical Lucifer to Aleister Crowley’s obsession with scientific method and nomenclature in his “Scientific Illuminism”. The implication is that the reorientation has to do with “the atomic discoveries at the century’s turn” (44). This may be stretching the point; especially in Crowley’s case the impetus to aligning oneself with the rhetoric of science seems to have come largely through other channels (including hardliners of Victorian naturalism, such as Huxley, Tyndall and Maudsley). Nevertheless, it is clear that the many tales of strange wave- and ray-phenomena that proliferated from laboratories in the 1890s stimulated the imagination of many occultists, especially theosophists.

The intriguing character of post-radiation alchemy is epitomised by the short-lived Alchemical Society in London (1913–1915). It was modelled on other professional societies, but its membership was culled from professional sciences and hermetic milieus alike. The journal and monthly meetings of the Alchemical Society provided a platform for negotiation and mutual transfer of ideas on the nature of the new chemistry and physics, its spiritual implications, and the connections between alchemy and the science of radioactivity. Drawing on theoretical work from the anthropology and sociology of science, Morrisson argues that the Alchemical Society was situated in a cultural “borderland” which, far from making it completely powerless, provided a place for unusual strategic alliances that yielded surprising advantages. The asymmetrical power relation which clearly existed between the scientific and occult segments of the society makes it easier to see how the latter benefitted from being informed on scientific discoveries and theorising, as well as capturing some scientific legitimacy for their occult alchemical project. This is particularly clear from the writings of the perhaps most prominent occultist of the society, A. E. Waite.

While the founder of the society, the chemist Stanely Redgrove, insisted that alchemical thinking had relevance for modern science as well, it remains less clear what the impact of this idea was. Alchemical parallels could help frame interpretations of atomic theory that emphasised the unity of matter and energy, even pushing towards a re-enchantment of science. Despite such philosophical prospects, it seems that the most important implication of the convergence – from the perspective of science, at least – was a thorough re-appreciation of alchemy as forbear to modern chemistry. The revival of alchemical tropes and metaphors would figure prominently in public discourses on atomic theory in the 1920s and 30s.

The second chapter of Morrisson’s book steps back from the question of alchemy as such to consider another intriguing appropriation of atomic physics by occultists: the theosophical research programme of “occult chemistry”, initiated by Annie Besant on the pages of Lucifer in 1895. The aim of the programme, which continued into the 20th century, aimed at clairvoyantly “scrying” the structure of elementary particles, even splitting atoms with psychic force to reveal the subtle realities of micro-physics, embedded firmly in theosophical cosmology. Morrisson sees this project, which has experienced a revival in the 1980s and 90s, as an attempt to contest and claim a scientific field for occultism. By claiming direct perception of the atomic level “occult chemistry” was cast as epistemologically superior to mundane chemistry, which had to rely on instrumentation and uncertain hypothetic-deductive reasoning to reach the same subtle reality. The theosophists fortified their position by claiming to have discovered isotopes in this way, years before they were observed in the laboratory by F. W. Aston. Despite marking a slight detour from the overall topic of the book, the subject matter of this chapter is fascinating and could well deserve a study of its own.

For the reader who is mostly interested in how the stream of esoteric thought invested in alchemy did or did not influence modern mainstream science, chapter three is the most enlightening one. The protagonists are the Nobel Prize winning chemists Frederick Soddy and Sir William Ramsay, and their quest for the artificial transmutation of elements. It documents the boundary conflict that arose between chemistry and physics at this time over the ownership of radioactivity. In this struggle, the alchemical discourse that had evolved in the Alchemical Society became important for the chemists. Morrisson shows how alchemy had gradually come to play a more important role in chemistry education towards the end of the 19th century. Ramsay, for instance, was an avid reader of the Hermetic literature and the alchemical texts presented by Waite and others, and had no problems with introducing this material to his chemistry students at the University of London (103). Soddy took it even further, and cemented alchemy’s importance to the professional identity of chemistry when he talked about chemists as “modern scientific alchemists”, claiming that transmutation had been the ultimate goal of chemists of all ages (110). Soddy was even prepared to argue that the ancient alchemists had possessed parts of the secrets of atomic power – a secret which stemmed, perhaps, from Atlantis (160-7)! Here Soddy’s mythologisation of chemistry was certainly aligned with the myth-making of occultists.

The alchemy trope played a vital role in the chemists’ campaign to claim this territory as theirs, even though it finally failed. The “modern alchemy” trope followed Ramsay’s transmutation experiments between 1907 and 1913 (121-30), where he claimed to have effected artificial transmutation with the methods of chemistry. The claims would appear spurious in the end. Real artificial transmutation did not occur until 1919 – produced by the physicist Rutherford, with the props of physics at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. Chemistry lost the battle for radioactivity, which became a province of atomic physics rather than radiochemistry.

The last chapter of Morrisson’s book concerns the perceived ramifications of transmutational efforts for an economy based on the gold standard. Here Morrisson’s background as a scholar of English literature becomes clear, as his main route of exploring the question runs through science fiction literature. H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free (1914) crystallised the problems of atomic energy, the transmutation of base elements into gold, and even the perils of nuclear warfare. It was influenced by Soddy’s writings on radium, and fuelled an evolving discourse which problematised the transmutational ambition of modern alchemy. Morrisson also explores the many science fiction stories appearing in Hugo Gernsback’s magazines Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories dealing with the relation between modern alchemy and economic peril. Showing a good sense of relevant contexts and surprising connections, Morrisson uses pulp science fiction stories to document the discursive networks created in the 1920s between modern physics, economic policy, and popular, occult and scientific perceptions of alchemy.

Modern Alchemy is an ambitious book, but largely succeeds at its task. One problem with taking on such a comprehensive data set is that one cannot reasonably devote the same level of detail to all protagonists. While Morrisson undoubtedly knows the science fiction literature by heart, and has conducted archival research on some figures that feature prominently, such as Ramsay and Soddy, others are treated somewhat superficially and sometimes from outdated secondary sources. Some of the work on occultism has this flavour; the information on Crowley, for instance, seems largely based on biographies which have been superseded by more solid scholarship during the last decade. At other points the comprehensive view makes one wonder if not other sources would be just as interesting for the project at hand: For instance, interpretations of alchemy connected with sexual magic is an important development of the same period which is not mentioned in the book. One also feels that the more enduring “borderland discipline” embodied in the Society for Psychical Research would have merited closer discussion. Several places in the book Morrisson is looking for connections between his professional chemists and the occult chemists of the Theosophical Society, without finding anything explicit. The SPR would have been an obvious place to look for such connections, seeing that it was the central arena for scientists (Ramsay was a member, for instance) to meet with spiritualists, theosophists and other occultists. But these are minor criticisms.

The major strengths and achievements of the book rest on its successful incorporation of perspectives from science studies (readers who are unfamiliar with that field will find Morrisson’s appendix on “Boundary-Work, Border Crossings, and Trading Zones” to be of great value). Introducing this framework provides a language for talking about the many overlooked connections that Morrisson highlights, between esoteric thought, physical and chemical science, literature, and other segments of modern culture. Moreover, it provides necessary theoretical depth for making sense of these connections. Overall, Modern Alchemy is a highly valuable contribution to existing scholarship on modern occultism, one which succeeds in placing it against a scientific context which has, surprisingly, evaded scholarly attention until now. Modern Alchemy will be indispensible for any scholar working on the connections between esoteric thought and professional science in the early 20th century.

Full reference:

Mark Morrisson, Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

N.B.: This work by Egil Asprem is the pre-production version of a review which was published in Aries 11.1 (2011), and copyrighted by Brill.
Creative Commons License
This pre-production version is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This is great, and Edgar Cayce explores it, but I can’t remember which book though!


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