J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Samuel Danforth and the Philosopher's Stone

In June I wrote about Dr. Samuel Danforth, a Loyalist suspected of supplying hay for the British military from his farm in Chelsea. Dr. Danforth’s father was also named Samuel and was also interested in medicine, of a sort.

According to this article in Alchemy Journal by Mark Stavish, Samuel Danforth (1696-1777) probably became intrigued by alchemy as a student at Harvard College in his teens. In its library was

the curious manuscript Compendium Physicae by Charles Morton. Morton, a Puritan, received his M.A. from Oxford in 1652, and emigrated to Massachusetts in 1686. His Compendium was a strange blend of the science of the period with Aristotle. A lengthy section was devoted to the “Artifice of Gold by Alchymy” or “the finding of the Phylosophers stone”, even stating, “Some have done it, such are cal’d the Adepti”. He listed among them, Lully, Paracelsus, and his disciple, van Helmont.
Danforth settled in Cambridge, just a few blocks from the college. At that time, learned gentlemen often dabbled in many fields. Danforth not only became a probate judge but read enough about medicine to try offering the smallpox inoculation in 1730, only eight years after the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather and his enslaved man Onesimus introduced the practice into Massachusetts. Cambridge voted its disapproval and asked Danforth to remove his patients to where they couldn’t infect anyone else. However, he kept enough respect in the community to be elected to the Council, the upper house of the Massachusetts colonial legislature, in 1739; he remained a member of that body for over thirty years.

Meanwhile, Samuel Danforth was collecting alchemical books and making extensive notes inside them. In 1773 he wrote to an old acquaintance, Benjamin Franklin, with news of discovering the philosopher’s stone; as Harry Potter fans know, that substance was supposed to confer immortality. Franklin wrote back on 25 July 1773:
I rejoice, therefore, in your kind intentions of including me in the benefits of that inestimable stone, which curing all diseases (even old age itself), will enable us to see the future glorious state of our America, enjoying in full security her own liberties, and offering in her bosom a participation of them to all the oppressed of other nations.

I anticipate the jolly conversation we and twenty more of our friends may have a hundred years hence on this subject, over that well replenished bowl at Cambridge commencement.
It’s disappointing to report that Danforth died four years later, in 1777. The Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport, who was interested in many fields and many secrets (however outlandish), had this to say in his diary.
(I’m reproducing the image since I can’t reproduce the Hebrew.)

Dr. Samuel Danforth inherited his father’s library, and in 1812 he donated twenty-one volumes on alchemy to the Boston Athenaeum.


Robert S. Paul said...

Thanks for writing about this!

I am a direct descendant of Samuel Danforth (the elder via the younger, whose son Peter fought in the Revolution), so any information I find on him is always exciting. I hadn't realized his brother, Thomas, was the Danforth mentioned in the Salem Witch Trials when I was in Salem, but I discovered it eventually.

I'm even more excited that my grandfather was acquaintances with Franklin!

pilgrimchick said...

Yet another interesting bit of history here. It's interesting you mention Chelsea, given even those of us who work with early 17th century American history identify it (Winnissimett). And, this reminded me of the fact that the son of the preacher in Plymouth colony (Brewster) actually dabbled in alchemy--so much for dad's influence on that one.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the Brewster info. Another alchemical researcher in the first decades of New England was John Winthrop, Jr., son of the Massachusetts governor and first governor of the Connecticut colony. He was probably more interested in his alchemy books than in governing; he probably took on that public office just so he would have enough social peace to carry out his studies.

I suspect there wasn't a big split between Puritan religion and natural philosophy (science) then. Both ways of looking at the world involved investigation rather than accepting traditional authority.

There certainly wasn't a stark split between alchemy and science. Isaac Newton spent a lot of his career pursuing alchemical ideas. The chemistry we know didn't really start to develop until around the time of the Revolution (Lavoisier, Priestley, &c.).