Inspired: Alchemists and housewives around a long table

27 July 2016

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Elissavet Ntoulia.

Working in a museum that explores the human condition, you develop the skill of spotting connections between elements that at first glance seem to randomly coexist. Sometimes inspiration comes from as trivial a thing as the choice of furniture: a long table in our Reading Room, for example, situated at the centre of a section exploring the themes of Alchemy and Food. Other sections explore only a single theme, like Body or Pain. So why have Alchemy and Food been paired together?

Possible answers are connected to human curiosity for experimentation and the quest to understand the body’s relationship with nature and the wider universe.

 One of the long tables in our Reading Room.

One of the long tables in our Reading Room.

The philosophical idea of viewing health holistically, connected with phenomena such as climate, diet, geographic location or planetary alignment, was not only embedded in Hippocratic and Galenic medicine but also in the Chinese and Arabic thought from which alchemy incorporated various traditions spreading in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Alchemy is mostly known for attempting to convert base metals into gold or finding a universal elixir. However, the controversial alchemist Paracelsus prompted his contemporaries to “stop making gold; instead find medicines.” Paracelsus advocated a hands-on approach in finding medicine through studying nature and gathering information by local healers and folk remedies; producing chemical medicines through experimentation, in direct contrast to the medical university training based mostly on books.

 Interior with an alchemist. Oil painting by Thomas Wijck.

Interior with an alchemist. Oil painting by Thomas Wijck.

The same processes of trial and error were taking place not only in alchemical labs but also in domestic kitchens by those excluded from medical education: housewives. Following the tradition of the medieval monks, housewives kept diaries and recipe books informed by their rich experience of experimenting with foodstuffs, herbs and plants, which passed from one generation to the next with the goal to stop suffering in the family.

At the heart of both alchemists’ and housewives’ activities lies what has been at the centre of human activity since time immemorial: adjust natural and often hostile ingredients through artificial preparations to human needs.

Today, a do-it-yourself community grows on the fringe of biotechnology, advocating a hands-on approach to science by people with no official training. Ethnopharmacology documents herbal medicine from traditional resources that can inform the discovery of modern drugs.

It seems that the human desire for experimentation in aiming to improve ourselves and our world is as insatiable as ever. More long tables will be needed…

Elissavet is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.