Alchemy at Trinity: Newton and the Library

Guest blog post by Dr Anke Timmermann, former Munby Fellow (2013-14) and author of an annotated catalogue of alchemical texts and illustrations in Cambridge. Anke is a historian of science, bibliographer, writer, and antiquarian bookseller.

It is a fact perhaps not as well-known as it ought to be that Trinity College is inextricably connected with alchemy today as it was in the early modern period. Today, the early modern alchemical manuscripts in the College Library form the most significant collection of its kind in Cambridge. In the late 17th century, it was one of Trinity’s most famous fellows, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who imprinted the indelible stamp of alchemy onto the College and its history. But the connection between Newton, alchemy, and Trinity College Library is not as straightforward as one might think.

In 1667, after spending the plague years (his ‘anni mirabiles’) at the family home at Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton returned to Cambridge, was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, and eventually moved into his first-floor rooms next to the Great Gate, where he would remain until 1695.[1] Here he wrote the Principia Mathematica, continued his work on optics, and also pursued his interest in chymistry,* a subject he possibly first encountered as a 13-year-old schoolboy, when he was lodging with an apothecary in Grantham.

David Loggan, Cantabrigia Illustrata… (London, 1675), X.18.2, plate 25 (detail)

While the young Royal Society (of which he would become president in 1703) probed the methods and principles of natural philosophy, Newton approached alchemy with characteristic fervour and inquisitiveness. Within a decade or so he compiled the ‘Index Chemicus’, an alphabetical list of alchemical substances, procedures, and concepts, from his reading of more than 150 alchemical works.[2] He also conducted chymical experiments, as his Cambridge amanuensis Humphrey Newton (no relation) reported: ‘[o]n the left end of the Garden [outside Newton’s rooms], was his Elaboratory, near the East end of the Chappell, where he, at these sett Times, employ’d himself in, with a great deal of satisfaction & Delight’.[3] Here alchemy became a lasting part of the fabric of the College: chemical residue from Newton’s experiments is apparently still traceable in the soil.[4]

Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (London, 1687), 1st edition, title page. Newton’s own copy with notes and corrections in his own hand.

But not all of Newton’s alchemical pursuits established such a permanent connection with the College. His library did not remain in College after his death, and it is only thanks to the College’s efforts that a large number of his books – including his own copy of the first edition of the Principia (1687), marked up in preparation for the second edition – returned to Trinity in the 20th century. Following their early dispersal, Newton’s alchemical papers are now ‘next door’ at King’s College, gathered and bequeathed by the economist John Maynard Keynes (who had also been ‘busily involved in helping Trinity College … obtain Newton’s library by dint of support from the Pilgrim Trust’).[5] And although it is unclear whether Newton owned any historical alchemical manuscripts himself, none of the manuscripts that now form Trinity College’s remarkable alchemical collection appear to have come from Newton’s library.

Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.14.57, I, f. 38v. Manuscript given by Thomas Whalley (ca 1584-1637), Vice-Master of Trinity.

In fact, the formation of the College’s outstanding collection of alchemica relied entirely on donations and bequests from a quite different group of individuals: antiquaries, scholars, and members of College who, as bibliophiles, were primarily interested in alchemical manuscripts as historical, not scientific objects. Some of their donations were already in Trinity College Library when Newton was admitted as a student in 1661.

Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.14.56, f. 4v (detail). Manuscript given by Thomas Whalley (ca 1584-1637), Vice-Master of Trinity.

There is one 16th-century alchemical manuscript that has fascinated me since I first saw it at the beginning of this millennium. This compendium (MS R.14.56) contains Latin and English texts on the theory and practice of chymistry as well as a few simple ink sketches of equipment, and came to Trinity College after the death of the former Vice-Master, cleric, priest, and bibliophile Thomas Whalley (d. 1637). Before Whalley’s bequest – a sizeable amount of money for the acquisition of scientific works as well as ten manuscripts from his private collection – the College had only had one alchemical manuscript, which had been given by Thomas Nevile, who had been Master from 1593 to 1615. Whalley’s donation added another five, among them this which, with its strong connections to Cambridge, was perhaps an especially apt addition to the Library’s holdings: it apparently circulated and was annotated in Cambridge circles from the time of its composition in the 16th century to the point when Whalley acquired it.

Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.14.56, f. 86v. Manuscript given by Thomas Whalley (ca 1584-1637), Vice-Master of Trinity.

What is especially interesting are the many annotations written by the early Cantabrigian readers, particularly alongside the English alchemical poems in this volume. It is rare to see such a vivid written conversation between readers in the margins of a manuscript of this kind. Their attempts to interpret the often ambiguous alchemical terms, their efforts to extract a straightforward recipe from an obscure text, and their disagreements with each other are rather fascinating.

Once it had entered Trinity College Library, manuscript R.14.56 was only read by members of College (and perhaps the occasional visitor). But although Newton would have had access to it, there is no evidence that he was among those who were drawn into its alchemical recipes; indeed, it is possible that the twain never met.

After Newton left Cambridge for London in 1695 the College’s obvious links with alchemy, which had been so prominent while he was there, slowly faded. His laboratory was not preserved, his library was displaced, and even his engagement with alchemy was forgotten for more than two centuries. But there is one part of College that would consolidate the history of alchemy at Trinity – a building that took shape while Newton worked in his garden laboratory, was finished in 1695 as he left Cambridge, and that, with time, became a home for both the College’s alchemical manuscripts and a substantial part of Newton’s library: the Wren Library on Nevile’s Court, where the famous Cipriani window allows light to enter through Newton’s likeness to illuminate the history of knowledge in all its different facets.

* The term ‘chymistry’, derived from its historical use and now commonly employed in the history of science, captures all activities connected with early modern chemistry and alchemy, including related pharmaceutical practices.

Further information:

Anke Timmermann, ‘Alchemy in Cambridge: An Annotated Catalogue of Alchemical Texts and Illustrations in Cambridge Repositories’, Nuncius 30 (2015), pp. 345-511

Anke Timmermann, Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry (Critical Editions and Studies) (Leiden, 2013), chapter 5: ‘Alchemical Poetry and Academia: Manuscripts as Chronicles of Scholarly Enquiry’, pp. 143-172

Anke Timmermann on Newton and alchemy at Trinity College Cambridge: Enquête d’ailleurs: Les alchimistes (2015; arte TV documentary on alchemy, see 19:39 min onwards)


Richard S. Westfall, ‘Newton, Sir Isaac’, ODNB

[1] Richard Hume Adrian, ‘Newton’s Rooms in Trinity’, Notes & Records 18 (1963), pp. 17-24.

[2] Isaac Newton, ‘Index Chemicus’ (King’s College Cambridge, MS Keynes 30).

[3] Humphrey Newton, letter to John Conduitt, 17 January 1727/8 (King’s College Cambridge, MS Keynes 135).

[4] P.E. Spargo, ‘Investigating the Site of Newton’s Laboratory in Trinity College, Cambridge’, South African Journal of Science 101 (2005), pp. 315-321.

[5] The Newton Project, ‘History of the Newton Papers’ – ‘1727-1872’ and ‘Newton-Related Papers of John Maynard Keynes’.

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