Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009
William R. Newman
Ruth N. Halls Professor of History and Philosophy of Science
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
College of Arts and Sciences
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1996
B.A., University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1978
A.M., Harvard University, 1980
Ph.D., Harvard University, 1986
For many years, scientists generally dismissed alchemy -- a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy that was practiced in the Middle Ages and was concerned with turning ordinary metals into gold -- as a pseudoscience. William Newman's research on the history of alchemy, however, has forced scholars to re-examine alchemy's role in the emergence of modern science. "He has endeavored to remove the mystical and occult associations of alchemy and depict it as an experimental science that cannot, and should not, be distinguished from early chemistry," says Alan Shapiro, professor of the history of science and technology at the University of Minnesota.
Newman's research has shed light on Isaac Newton's deep obsession with alchemy, which was controversial even during Newton's time and has long remained a mystery. Newman is currently engaged in a project -- supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities -- called "The Chymistry of Isaac Newton." (Newman and his collaborator, Lawrence Principe, use "chymistry," the seventeenth-century spelling of "chemistry," to describe alchemical pursuits in the early modern world.) Newman and his research team are digitizing and analyzing Newton's previously suppressed laboratory notebooks on alchemy and making them available to the public for the first time. His work on this project "represents yet again a significant contribution not only to scholarship, but to future generations of researchers that will benefit from his work," says Rose-Mary Sargent, professor of philosophy at Merrimack College.
Newman has also replicated a number of Newton's alchemical experiments, some of which were filmed for a NOVA/BBC documentary called Newton's Dark Secrets, which was broadcast in 2005.
In 2005 Newman and Principe won the History of Science Society's prestigious Pfizer Prize for their book Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry, in which they argue that historians of chemistry should look to alchemist and natural philosopher George Starkey, rather than Robert Boyle, for the origins of modern chemistry.
"Newman's record as a historian of alchemy is impressive, both for its insights into the complex process of intellectual history, and for the critical precision and scientific depth of its scholarship," says Mordechai Feingold, professor of history at the California Institute of Technology. "The range of his interests is wide and is well matched by the profundity of his knowledge. He is among a small group of historians of science who are not only endowed with firsthand knowledge of the body of knowledge they investigate, but who are attempting to integrate social and cultural history into their work."
Newman's books have been hailed as "groundbreaking and substantial" by Peter Benbow in Annals of Science, and Newman's work has been covered in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. "His being reviewed in such widely circulated venues is a testament to his ability to get that recondite material across in a way accessible to nonspecialist readers, no small feat when it comes to alchemy," says A. Mark Smith, Curators' Professor of History at the University of Missouri.
In addition to being a funded member of the Institute for Advanced Study in 2000-2001, Newman has received many of the top grants and fellowships in his field. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship, repeated National Science Foundation fellowships and awards, and a funded position as a Dibner Institute Scholar. He has also been elected as a corresponding member of the Académie internationale d'histoire des sciences.
"In sum," says Elisabeth Lloyd, Tanis Chair of History and Philosophy of Science at IU Bloomington, "Newman is internationally recognized as one of the world's top authorities on alchemy, early Newton, and early modern science in general."