Gershom Bulkeley (1635-1713): A Sensory Chymist in Colonial Connecticut

By Donna Bilak

Who was Gershom Bulkeley? (you may well ask). A Harvard-educated Puritan gentleman from an important New England family, Bulkeley spent most of his life in Connecticut as a colonial divine, physician, and magistrate of upstanding (and by contemporary accounts obstinate) character. Bulkeley was also an iatrochymist – an aspect of his work that is only now starting to receive scholarly attention – and prolific compiler of notes about the medico-alchemical experiments that he conducted in his laboratory, likely a part of his dwelling place.

About 25 miles from where Bulkeley once lived, there now exists a kind of biblio-bunker in the University of Connecticut Health Center. This is where the Hartford Medical Historical Society Library keeps its collection of rare books and manuscripts. And this is where twenty-four manuscripts that are either by or associated with Bulkeley ended up. NB: there is treasure buried in this underground archive! (I am sure that as a Puritan with millenarian expectations, Gershom himself would be comforted to know that in the event of some kind of apocalyptic event, his notebooks will survive intact.)

I came across this cache back in 2011 while chasing down different leads for my dissertation about one of Bulkeley’s contemporaries, another Harvard-trained Puritan minister-physician-alchemist named John Allin (1623-1683). But in going through the various manuscripts, I was drawn to one of Bulkeley’s notebooks in particular: Bulkeley MS 5.

FIG 01 shows the spine of the 19th-century book cover (constructed of boards covered with period cloth of a by now indeterminate greenish-blue color), the spine bears the imprint “Parley’s Fables 1834” in faded gold letting.
(author’s own photograph)
FIG 02 the eighth page of the first (8-page) set of lab notes at the start of the book; on the right hand side is the start of the Institutiones medicae (shows for comparison of scrawly lab hand, and nice neat and TINY copy hand)
(author’s own photograph)

This is a small book that has been rebound using the cover from a 19th-century book of fairy tales, and it contains a series of entries about alchemical experiments that Bulkeley undertook between 1703 and 1706 scrawled across eight pages, with an additional sixty-three pages oriented upside down at the back of the book of more extensive laboratory notes of ongoing experiments, dated 1702 to 1707. At some point in time, both sets of notes were bound together with Bulkeley’s (undated) abridged copy of the Institutiones medicae by Lazare Rivière (1589-1655) – i.e., two hundred and forty-four densely written pages of Latin in a neat and minute hand ­– sandwiched between the aforementioned two sets of laboratory records. Intriguing stuff…

…because Bulkeley crammed this notebook full of particulars about chymical substances, instrumentation, and techniques. Bulkeley worked with different chymical substances for pharmaceutical production. His recorded experiments are filled with actions (tasting, weighing, drying, stirring, observing, waiting), and his laboratory entries document a range of output (he made salts, spirits, powders, pills, oils, dissolvents, elixirs). In their preparations, Bulkeley worked with iron, copper, and antimonial substances, as well as mercury, arsenic, silver, coral, and turpentine, and he used various chymical processes (calcination, coagulation, sublimation, evaporation, distillation). Bulkeley also detailed the equipment he used, describing things like various retorts (one is silver) and curcurbits (a glass one, a silver one), heavy and light scales, a blue jug, a copper vessel, an alembic, a receiver.

Another striking feature of this notebook is Bulkeley’s use of naked senses – taste, touch, and sight – as tools of investigation in his experiments. Bulkeley describes the consistency of experimental matter in comparison to common foodstuffs (“pudding” features large in his notes as a standard for assessing viscosity). Bulkeley also records the presence, or absence, of “lixiviate”, “vinegar”, “alcalisate”, or “urinous” tastes; interestingly, these references to tasting generally occur (when they do) at the conclusion of a given entry. Bulkeley’s haptic perception in the lab comes across in three entries, which record experiments that took place between January 27 and February 1, 1702. Here, Bulkeley detailed a distillation process involving nitre, mineral iron, and oil of vitriol (the objective appeared to be the production of aqua fortis), whereby an outcome of these distillation experiments was to harvest the caput mortuum.

Bulkeley observed that the dregs from January 27th “looked pretty white,” while that from January 29th was reddish, and he concluded with the comment, “Both the Cap. mort came out easily enough & crumbly but the 2d was not so soft & easy as the first/”. This seems to indicate mixed results in Bulkeley’s estimation. A third (and likely final) entry dated February 1 indicates the continuation of this experiment, with some changes in ingredients (i.e., the addition of flowers of sulphur) and procedure (Bulkeley undertook the sublimation of the matter in question). Notably, Bulkeley recorded that he did not lute his receiver (meaning that he did not undertake the preventative measure of smearing a claylike compound around this vessel to seal and thusly protect it in heating procedures).

This time, things did not go so well with the experiment:

I could not get no more off the broken pot: & flowers in the head that I could save, [6…] : that is in all. But it was the same pitcher in which I had destilled A. F. put in before, suc. Janr 27. & 29. & now it was cracked & had leaked a little out into the sand, had drunke up some into it; & I could not get the Cap. mort cleane off, nor the flowers absolutely cleane: & tis very Pbable some might evaporate, the Rec. not being luted on./ The sulphur in the Capt Mort was not fixt, but which upon a coale readily smoake & flame burne with a very fine blew flame./

FIG 03 LH page: Feb.1, 1702 caput mortuum experiment entry (goes with my transcription) (author’s own photograph)

These entries about the caput mortuum show Bulkeley’s bodily way of knowing as a form of assay, a testing procedure that links sensory analysis with chemical analysis in his evaluation of the progress of his work. This also shows that Bulkeley paid just as much attention to detailed sensory descriptions of his failures in the lab as he did to successes.

Bulkeley MS 5 is a valuable artifact of Bulkeley’s heuristic laboratory methods in the production of chemical pharmaceuticals, likely destined for use in his medical practice. While this notebook presents us with puzzles (what prompted its compilation? how was it used?), at the same time we are granted open access into Bulkeley’s experimental activities, a window into his dynamic medico-alchemical operations in a colonial community at the turn of the 18th century.

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Donna Bilak is a historian of early modern science specializing in material culture, and works on the history of alchemy in British North America, England and the Continent, the study of emblematics, and jewelry history and craft technology. Donna’s current research focuses on Atalanta fugiens (1618), a musical alchemical emblem book by the German physician and alchemist, Michael Maier; she is currently a Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America (Columbia), working on her book about Atalanta fugiens and playful humanism; and Donna is co-editing a digital edition of this extraordinary work with Tara Nummedal supported by Brown University Library’s Mellon-funded Digital Publishing Initiative.


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