Just about every student goes through the scientific rite of passage called high school chemistry, and quite a few of them go on to take more advanced courses in college. But how many know that the origins of the word date back to either Ancient Egypt or Ancient Greece?
Some historians claim an Egyptian origin based upon the Decree of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian (c. 300, A.D.). This decree ordered the burning of all Egyptian writings outlining the transmutation of gold and silver. Based on this edict as well as a series of hieroglyphic inscriptions, scholars as far back as Plutarch (46-120, A.D.) have insisted that the root word, Chem, was derived from the name of ancient Egypt, the land of Khem, which means rich, black soil—the type that flourished near the banks of the Nile and was prized for its fertility, as opposed to the sands of the surrounding desert.
The "science of Chem"—as Egyptian mythology suggests—was a heavenly gift to humankind from Osiris, the Egyptian god of light and wisdom, and his wife Isis, the goddess of magic, motherhood, and fertility.
The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, declares that the word is more likely a child of the Greek, chemia—for pouring or infusion. The ancient Greeks applied this term to what came to be known as pharmaceutical chemistry. Physicians of this era would extract the juices or infusions of plants for medicinal purposes.
The words chemistry and alchemy were practically interchangeable for generations of Alexandrian, Persian, Greek, Roman and later European proto-scientists and physicians. Especially during the Middle Ages and well into the 16th century, the alchemist’s primary goal was to discover or create a mythical "philosopher’s stone," or lapis philosophorum, that could turn base metals into gold and silver and act as an elixir that magically cured one's ills and granted eternal youth.
Alchemy also espoused a polyglot of philosophies concerning personal virtue and transformation that have persisted and mutated over the past four centuries, including finding their way into the psychoanalytical writings of Carl Jung. Parenthetically, the original title for the first Harry Potter book, in keeping with its alchemical theme, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Despite its runaway success in Great Britain, the U.S. publisher changed it to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because they believed American children and parents would never purchase a book containing the word philosopher.
From the mid-17th century on, the application of physical methods to study matter began to dominate the discipline. This led the British natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) to formally rename the field chemistry in his 1661 treatise, The Skeptical Chymist. In that work Boyle disputed the ideas of Aristotle, Paracelsus and others as he argued for more scientifically grounded approaches when studying the composition of matter. He is best known for proclaiming (and proving) Boyle’s Law: the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, when the temperature is kept constant in a closed system.
Since the 18th and 19th centuries, a parade of scientific revolutionaries, including Lavoisier, John Dalton and many others, developed what we now know as modern chemistry, a logical, quantitative and reproducible framework for understanding not only the composition of matter but also how matter can change forms by means of chemical reactions between two or more substances.
In the years since, scientists have essentially discarded the teachings of alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, and the magical mysticism of turning lead into gold or finding a universal cure-all—unless, that is, you are a graduate of the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.