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Teaching a Perfect Knowledge in the Arts and Sciences: Robert Dossie’s chemical, pharmaceutical, and artistic handbooks

Front page to a 1796 reprint of Dossie’s Handmaid

By Marieke Hendriksen

Robert Dossie (1717-1777) was and English apothecary, experimental chemist, and writer. Within just three years, he published three very successful handbooks: The elaboratory laid open (1758) on chemistry and pharmacy for ‘all practitioners of medicine’, Theory and practice of chirurgical pharmacy (1761) for surgeons, and The handmaid to the arts (1758), which taught ‘a perfect knowledge of the Materia Pictoriae’ such as painting, gilding, and japanning. Gibbs (1951, 1953) has written a short overview of Dossie’s life and work, with a focus on his role in the Society of the Arts, but paid no attention to the cohesion of his seemingly divergent work.

Lowengard (2006) has briefly noted that Dossie used a form typical for books about materia medica for his book on the arts, grouping the contents according to techniques employed as well as by the media to which they might be applied, yet his work has never been thoroughly analyzed. Did Dossie indeed transmit a way of structuring and presenting practical knowledge in text from one realm to another? Recipe collections and how-to books before the eighteenth century were often a mixture of medicinal and artisanal recipes and instructions, and the boundaries between medicine, chemistry, and the preparation and application of artist’s materials often so fluid as to be almost non-existent.

Moreover, some earlier printed books on painting and dying techniques did employ the format of a systematic discussion of materials and their preparations, followed by their application, for example Willem Goeree’s 1760 Verlichterie-kunde  What was novel about Dossie’s Handmaid of the Arts though was the combination of this way of presenting practical artisanal knowledge, his attempt to be encyclopaedic in his collection – listing the uses of the same base materials in the production of various artistic and decorative objects, and his very intentional use of the term ‘Materia Pictoriae’.

Rubia tinctorium (madder), one of the many plants that was both materia medica and materia pictoria

The latter appears to have been an attempt to subtly elevate the status of the visual and decorative arts by paralleling the materia pictoriae to the materia medica. Finally, the intended audience gives us more insight in how Dossie understood his own work. From the preface of the book, it appears that Dossie did not so much aim at the people creating visual and decorative objects, but at the professional preparers of artist’s materials, of whom he wrote: “a much greater share of knowledge in natural history, experimental philosophy, and chymistry, is required to the understanding the nature of the simples [sic], and principles of the composition, in a speculative light, than is consistent with the study of other subjects more immediately necessary to an artist.” (p. vii-viii)

In eighteenth-century England, high street chemists and druggists were evolving from preparers and sellers of chemical substances to compounders, stockists, and sellers of drugs and dispensers of medical advice, and it is in this light that Dossie’ work and his division between materia medica and materia pictorial must be seen. Did Dossie intentionally and successfully adapt and implement formats and language traditionally used in one field (medicine) for the organization and transmission of practical knowledge in text to others (chemistry and the arts)? To me it appears that in his mind, materia medica and materia pictoriae were both branches on the tree of chemistry, and that his corpus, which we now tend to see as divergent, was actually a cohesive body of work to him and his contemporaries.


Dupré, Sven, ed. Laboratories of Art : Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th Century. Archimedes 37. Cham [u.a.]: Springer, 2014.

Gibbs, F.W. “Robert Dossie (1717–77) A Further Bibliographical Note.” Annals of Science 9, no. 2 (1953): 191–93.

Gibbs, F.W.  “Robert Dossie (1717–1777) and the Society of Arts.” Annals of Science 7, no. 2 (1951): 149–72.

Lowengard, Sarah. The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Columbia University Press, 2006. http://www.gutenberg-e.org/lowengard/C_Chap05.html.

Worling, Peter M. ‘Pharmacy in the Early Modern World, 1617 to 1841 AD’, in Making Medicines: A Brief History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals, ed. by Stuart Anderson (London: Pharmaceutical Press, 2005), pp. 57–76.



A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.  © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.


[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.