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Alchemical Teas, ‘Song Of The Chemist’

by Jyllian Kemsley
May 5, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 18


Credit: Shutterstock
17th-century medicinals: Poppy flowers and cinchona bark.
Photo of poppy flowers
Credit: Shutterstock
17th-century medicinals: Poppy flowers and cinchona bark.

“Cinchona bark tea is the bitter­est thing I’ve ever encountered—so acrid that it acquires an entirely different sensation on the tongue, a transcendent state of bitterness evoking flavours of turpentine, bile, and crude petroleum.”

Credit: Shutterstock
Photo of cinchona bark
Credit: Shutterstock

So wrote Benjamin Breen in Aeon Magazine last month. A history graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, Breen is writing his thesis on “Tropical Transplantations: Drugs, Nature, and Globalization in the Portuguese and British Empires, 1640–1750.” In his view, the British Empire was built on drug trades: opium, tea, coffee, tobacco, and sugar.

As part of his research, Breen looked at 17th-century cookbooks, which contain a mix of recipes for food and medicine. Intrigued—and in the alchemical spirit of experimenting on himself—he chose a few medicinal formulas to try.

One was the cinchona bark tea, which involves infusing the bark with East Indian spices in boiling water. Cinchona trees are native to western South America and contain quinine. Quinine is best known as a malaria cure, but it also relaxes muscles and induces vivid dreams. The tea did seem to loosen Breen’s back muscles, and he subsequently dreamed of “glowing undersea creatures made of jewels,” he wrote in Aeon.

Notably, the bark turned bright red when he added it to the boiling water. That explained why people trying to pass off other barks for cinchona would add red dye to the barks, Breen tells Newscripts.

Another recipe was for poppy water, which involves steeping poppy flowers, cloves, mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon in brandy. Breen substituted poppy seeds for the flowers. The seeds contain only traces of opiates, but he probably extracted other alkaloid compounds, he says. The concoction produced “a mild and pleasant but somewhat stimulating buzz,” he wrote in Aeon.

Breen is also the founder of a quarterly publication called The Appendix, in which he and colleagues experiment with historical storytelling on topics such as the first synthesis of methamphetamine by a Japanese chemist in 1893, suicide bomber cats from the 16th century, and the political significance of Abe Lincoln’s whiskers.

After the recent Newscripts column on 17th-century encoding of alchemical recipes into musical scores (C&EN, March 24, page 40), Maurice Snook, of Athens, Ga., sent in “Song of the Chemist,” by composer George F. Root (1820–95):


Singers from the choir of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga., perform “Song of the Chemist."

Click here for audio

Credit: Kevin O. Kelly

Oh, come where the Cyanides silently flow,
and the Carburets droop o’er the Oxides
Where the rays of Potassium shine on
the hill,
and the song of the Silicate never
is still.

Root is also known for the Civil War songs “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” and “Battle Cry of Freedom.”

Kevin O. Kelly, librarian at the University of Georgia Hugh Hodgson School of Music, found “Song of the Chemist” in a 1901 book of male quartets. The piece is in the barbershop gospel style popular in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Kelly tells Newscripts. Such songs of the period often included a few basic chords, close vocal harmonies, and humorous lyrics, Kelly says.

Kelly and Snook attend the same church, and Kelly had the choir serenade Snook for his birthday. All chemists should be so lucky, the Newscripts gang thinks. Snook is particularly curious about the meaning of one term used in the chorus: vinivitum, as in “Come! Oh, come! Peroxide of Soda and Vinivitum.” Any ideas, readers?

Jyllian Kemsley wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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