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CHF Debuts Rare Book Collection

May 10, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 19

"Ortus Medicinae" ["The Dawn of Medicine"], by Johanne Baptista van Helmont, 1st edition, Amsterdam, 1648.
"Ortus Medicinae" ["The Dawn of Medicine"], by Johanne Baptista van Helmont, 1st edition, Amsterdam, 1648.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) has purchased--for $10 million--the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, a collection of roughly 6,000 rare volumes spanning six centuries of science and covering topics such as mining, metallurgy, physics, chemistry, alchemy, botany, and medicine.

CHF debuted the collection on April 19 with a public display, reception, and keynote address by Lawrence M. Principe, a professor of chemistry and of the history of science, medicine, and technology at Johns Hopkins University. As a scholar in residence at CHF, Principe is one of the first academicians to study the Neville library in depth.

"CHF now holds one of the most important collections of the early history of chemistry in the world," he said. "Speaking as a historian of science, I know that if I were to try to locate another repository with this volume, this depth, and this breadth of material elsewhere, I would be limited to a very few sites indeed--those sites, in fact, would be the caliber of national libraries of major nations."

The earliest work in the collection--a Latin Bible--dates from 1478, shortly after the printing press was invented. The newest is a historical volume by Sir William Ramsay dating from 1918. In between are many of the most important chemical and alchemical works in existence and a number of extremely rare or unique items not available elsewhere.

Highlights include Georg Agricola's "De Re Metallica" (1661); several hundred volumes representing all of Robert Boyle's works; Robert Hooke's "Micrographia" (1665); a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton's seminal work, "Principia Mathematica" (1687); Antoine Lavoisier's "Traite Elementaire de Chimie" (1789); John Dalton's pamphlet, "New System of Chemical Philosophy" (1808­27); and Dmitry Mendeleyev's "Osnovy Khimii" ["Principles of Chemistry"] (1869­71). The library also contains a large collection of alchemical works; chemical dictionaries; textbooks; and master's and doctoral dissertations from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including Mendeleyev's master's essay in chemistry.

Roy G. Neville, who now works as a chemical consultant, is an avowed bibliophile who began collecting chemical texts while still an undergraduate, almost 60 years ago. He purchased texts, paid to have damaged works rebound or repaired, and typed up detailed information sheets for each work. His collection's new home is in CHF's Donald F. & Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History, located in central Philadelphia.

CHF was able to purchase the collection because of a donation by Gordon and Betty Moore, who were unable to attend the CHF events. Gordon Moore, a cofounder of Intel, penned the famous Moore's law.

"Betty and I believe it is important to conserve for future generations the books and documents that record and reveal the remarkable progress of the chemical sciences through the past 600 years," he said in a statement.

CHF plans to make the library readily accessible by the summer, when the first official fellows studying the collection arrive. By the end of the year, it also hopes to have significant portions of the library cataloged and available through its public-access online system. Creating a full library catalog will take between two and three years, and may include scans of title pages, images, plates, and engravings.

When that's done, Principe said, scholars will have easy access to a top-tier specialized library containing many works not available anywhere else--a veritable scholarly treasure chest.

The library contains four overlapping categories of value, he added. First, many famous works are worth a lot of money but have already been studied in depth and are less interesting from a scholarly point of view. Second, some works can be associated with specific people, such as signed books or books owned by famous scientists. Then there are the scarce works, which can be found only in one or a few locations. Finally, there are works whose presence in the library imparts collective value, such as the collection's 24 copies of a dictionary of chemistry, which allows scholars to see how works evolve over time.

"I look forward eagerly to new discoveries," Principe said, "while I, for my part, go back to the vault."


The Very Strange Tale Of Messrs. Newton And Boyle

Two prominent 17th-century scientists searching for alchemical secrets, a recipe for the philosopher's stone, political intrigue, and intellectual rivalry. No, it's not Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver"; it's the first major discovery made in the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library.

While searching the collection, Lawrence M. Principe, a professor of chemistry and of the history of science, medicine, and technology at Johns Hopkins University, came across a note by Sir Isaac Newton detailing a recipe for the philosopher's stone--a process to turn base metals into gold. As author of a book on Robert Boyle's alchemy, Principe is one of only a few historians in the world who could have recognized its significance.

The story begins shortly after Boyle's death in 1691. Newton writes to his friend John Locke, the famous philosopher who is serving as one of three executors to Boyle's estate, asking Locke for one of Boyle's chemical formulas--one that Boyle, while alive, would never give Newton. Newton claims that this is "the thing for which Mr. B has repealed the Act Against Multipliers."

The Act Against Multipliers was an old English law--enacted in 1404--forbidding the transmutation of base metals into gold. Boyle was an influential figure in the 17th century, but he intervened in politics only once--to have this law repealed.

Locke then sends Newton only the first of the formula's three periods, or steps, saying that was all Newton had asked for. Newton replies disparagingly that he doesn't believe in alchemy anyhow, having come up with an unanswerable argument for why transmutation is impossible. Until this year, that was considered the end of the story.

But Principe's discovery says otherwise, for Newton's note in the newly uncovered manuscript contains not only the first period of the process, but the third as well. "Clearly, Newton had more access to Boyle's papers than we thought," Principe says. "He got the whole process after all."

And Newton's scrawlings reveal more. "Until now, we never knew where Boyle had gotten this process," Principe adds. But near the top of the page, it says "Roth Mallor's work." Principe recognized that as a variation on Erasmus Rothmaler, author of an alchemical treatise still in Boyle's personal papers. Boyle wanted to give that treatise to Newton after his death--a taunt, Principe suggests, by Boyle, who never really got along with Newton. "Boyle never gave Newton the formula directly; instead, he bequeathed him an obscure treatise that came from the same man," Principe says.

This story demonstrates two things. "First, it shows that Newton's interest in this alchemical process was far greater than we imagined. We can't take at face value his dismissive comments," he says. "And second, it allows us to piece together how chemical processes get passed on. Boyle, Newton, Locke, Rothmaler--it's the glue, so to speak, that links them all together."

The way this paper surfaced in Neville's collection also teaches lessons to modern-day historians. Newton's papers descended through his family until the 1930s, when they were offered to Cambridge University. But Cambridge took only what it deemed scientific, leaving behind thousands of pages of alchemical and theological writings. These were put up for auction by Sotheby's in 329 lots--scattering many of them beyond recovery. This paper wound its way into Neville's hands from Lot No. 18.

"They were bad stewards of Newton's legacy," Principe says. "Now, we need to preserve Neville's lifetime of collecting intact. We need to have good stewardship for a priceless deposit. This has to outlast us all."


Touring A Rare Book Collection


It's 3:30 PM on a beautiful spring afternoon, and I'm waiting in the Chemical Heritage Foundation's central Philly headquarters for a tour of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library. Highlights from the collection are housed in a small, dark room in CHF's Donald F. & Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History. It's low-key and nondescript. I could be anywhere--well, except for the sign overhead that reads "Rare Book Room" and the librarian dangling his large set of keys like a prison warden.

I can't tell who's more excited--me, for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see books I have only read about, or my guide, Christopher Stanwood. As an access services librarian at CHF, one of his major tasks is to provide access to all of CHF's library collections--including rare books--either through the library's reading room or by processing reference requests from outside patrons. He's already reeling off highlights of the collection as he unlocks the entrance.

It smells of age inside, of must and old leather. It's chilly--a constant 65 šF, Stanwood tells me over the low thrum of air conditioners. The lights are set low to minimize wear on the books, which are carefully arranged behind brass-mesh cabinets that cover three walls of the room from floor to ceiling. Only a small sampling of Neville's huge collection is represented here; the remaining 90% is secured elsewhere on site.

Later, Stanwood tells me that the humidity in the room is also kept constant, at between 44 and 45%. "We keep everything steady," he says. "The worst thing you can do is have spikes in temperature or humidity. It creates expansion and contraction in the books, and anything else, really. That's when you get cracking in the spines, for example."

Stanwood has already pulled out a selection of books in preparation for the Neville library's public debut. They line the table in all sizes and shapes, from imposing tomes to tiny pocket references. He dons a pair of white cotton gloves and gingerly flips through one--a catalog of medicine and herbs--pointing out its lavish illustrations and meticulous drawings. The book's cover of thick oak board creaks ever so slightly.

The books in the collection are mostly printed on linen or pulp paper, with covers of vellum, various kinds of leather, pressed paper, wood board, or fabric.

Visitors to the library must wear gloves to handle any of the volumes, and exceptionally fragile works are supported in special foam cradles when in use by researchers. Only pencils are allowed for note-taking in the reading room, though visitors also have access to an overhead scanner designed for use with rare books.

"Is there anything in particular you want to see?" Stanwood asks. I hesitate, then sheepishly request to see "Principia Mathematica." He unlocks one of the cabinets and removes Sir Isaac Newton's most famous work. Later, he quickly pulls some of Robert Boyle's works from a top shelf.

I wonder how he knows where to look--the cabinets are all unmarked. He smiles--the more famous works, at least, he knows by heart.

As Stanwood locks the room behind me, I'm struck by the magnitude and scope of the collection. These books created and shaped the infant world of modern science--they were the building blocks of much of our own knowledge and technology. In an age of electronics, there's something to be said for breathing and touching that history.


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