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Portrait of Boyle (larger version).
Boyle (1627-1691) was England’s most famous chemist. He was initially motivated to study oriental languages like Arabic and Syriac because of their biblical significance. Later he became more interested in the natural philosophy found in texts written in these languages, and his circle of orientalist friends helped him to find useful information in the increasing number of Arabic and Persian manuscripts that were arriving in England.
Printed table of oriental languages, including Arabic (17th century) (larger version). Found among the papers of Robert Boyle, this may be a specimen of Edmund Castell's Lexicon.
Arab chemists influenced Boyle’s understanding of chemical processes and his natural philosophy. His main source of such knowledge was his friend the orientalist Thomas Hyde. As a librarian at the Bodleian in Oxford, Hyde had access to a treasure of Arabic and Persian manuscripts and periodically sent Boyle extracts from them including recipes out of a book ‘as thick as one’s thumb’ by al-Iraqi, a 13th century Muslim chemist. Boyle also asked Pococke to translate for him the tables of longitude and latitude compiled by the Syrian geographer Abulfeda.
Detail from Avicenna and Geber, Artis chemicae principes (1572) (larger version). This Latin book claims to offer the best out of the chemistry of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan).
This legendary polymath (721 - 815) excelled in many fields but it is his achievements in chemistry that made him famous in medieval Europe. The name ‘Geber’ was used by an anonymous European writer in the 13th century as a pen-name for his book on alchemy. Geber believed in experimentation: ‘The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery’. For such experiments he is credited with developing many items of chemical laboratory equipment.
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