Amidst a phenomenal range of history courses this quarter, students can learn about science, religion, and even magic in HIST 25216: The History of Alchemy. The course, which is taught by Justin Niermeier-Dohoney, a Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences, reveals how alchemy was far more than a fringe attempt at turning lead into gold. Rather, the class explores alchemy as a form of proto-chemistry, a philosophy, and a worldview that influenced major scientific figures like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton.

Students begin the course by studying alchemy's origins in the ancient Greco-Egyptian Mediterranean and its development in the Arab Middle East, before delving into the Latin Middle Ages and early modern Europe. They will examine a breadth of topics including the application of alchemical theories in medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, and the life sciences; religious admonitions and defenses of its practice; the development of alchemical laboratory technologies; the intersections between alchemy, natural magic, and astrology; and its intellectual and social position in the history of the scientific revolution.

The course is a mix of lecture and discussion, with readings that include primary source texts by alchemists from the ancient world through the eighteenth century. Students will travel to the Special Collections at the Regenstein to examine some early modern alchemical texts in person. They will also watch a number of videos from modern historians and chemists who have recreated some alchemical experiments.

HIST 25216 is an excellent course for students not only interested in history, but also topics like chemistry, biology, and the physical sciences. It is also a great fit for students who want to learn more about the history and philosophy of science, as well as medieval and early modern European history.


Teaching Fellows in the Social Sciences is a competitive two-year program designed to enhance the pedagogical skills and extend research training for recent graduates of PhD programs in the social sciences at the University of Chicago. Teaching fellows demonstrate excellence in their original scholarship and teaching and are selected by a faculty committee.