A golden find: Isaac Newton's famed alchemy text joins UI collection

A golden find: Isaac Newton's famed alchemy text joins UI collection

Isaac Newton did a lot. He invented calculus, formulated the laws of motion and gravity and is a scientist key to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

But some may not know that Newton was as enthralled by alchemy as his scientist predecessors, and like them sought to achieve the impossible: make a philosopher's stone.

Now part of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois, "Opus Galli Anonymi" gives a glimpse into the Age of Enlightenment scientist's work toward crafting the alchemical substance said to be able to turn lead to gold.

"It's been known for quite some time that (Newton) did some alchemical experiments in addition to physics and chemistry," said Rare Book and Manuscript Library head Lynne Thomas. "This is one of the most famous failed experiments in history."

The work is Newton's Latin translation of an anonymous French work on making the stone, with added corrections and notes. It was acquired at auction for $275,000 thanks to a donation from UI alumni Jim and Lionelle Elsesser of St. Louis. The document, said Lionelle Elsesser, "sheds light on one of the great investigators in science," and called the work a "small insight into genius."

Newton's manuscript will now be a part of a collection that includes more than 7,000 similar works on the history of mathematics, natural history and science. It will join the stacks alongside works by Greek mathematician Euclid and Newton's "Principia Mathematica."

It's not often the university gets to make a purchase quite like this.

"As far as I know, a gift like this hasn't happened in recent memory," Thomas said. "Generally, we don't have the opportunity to make these kinds of purchases. But it's never a bad day to go to work when we do."

Probably no more than once or twice a year does the university receive a gift as sizeable as the Elsessers' donation of a half-million dollars, said assistant dean of library advancement Scott Koeneman.

Rare Books, he said, is a unique animal compared to the other library units at the university because its acquisitions are usually based on what's available in the market.

"It could be a couple of months before something else that fits the kind of things we collect turns up," he said.

On the rarity of works the university gets, he added, "it depends on what you're measuring. How often do we see something from Isaac Newton? Not very often."

But they do get works from personal collections that they classify as "medium rare," not necessarily Newton but something that's particularly old, unique or special in some way.

He and others in the UI library system work closely with alumni to talk about what the university's needs are and what they want to accomplish when asking for money or donations.

"In the case of the Elsessers, both are alumni and both understand the value of the work that's done here," he said. "And really they wanted to do something that's big and impactful, something that will help not only dramatically improve the collection but also raise the visibility of the work we do here."

He said the manuscript was packed like nothing he'd ever seen before. A wooden box lined with foam, another padded box, an acid-free envelope, an acid-free folder and then a plastic sleeve all kept the manuscript safe. It took about 15 minutes just to get it out.

Now, the work will begin on making the manuscript publicly available. It has to be digitized, housed correctly in order to maximize its longevity and translated from Latin. Since the work was privately-owned prior to the university acquiring it, the text has never been translated. And what's particularly interesting about this manuscript, said Thomas, is that it is a translation of a French work that no longer exists.

"It's an aspect of Newton's scientific life that isn't usually known but has taken a hold in popular culture," Thomas said, referencing J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series that popularized the philosopher's stone and may have had a part in driving up the price of the manuscript.

She added that there aren't any current plans to start experiments based on what's in the manuscript. Though Koeneman speculated it could very well end all of the UI's money problems.

"It's such a privilege and honor to be the steward of this work," Thomas said. And of holding the historical document, she added, "it's a challenge to handle things appropriately sometimes when your hands are shaking."

For Koeneman, the experience of holding the manuscript was a thrill also.

"When you are in contact with something like that, it's a link to that piece of history," he said. "From the moment Isaac Newton sat down with a blank piece of paper, all the way through all the people who handled it; all who have seen it and read it ... all of us here are now part of that line."

The library hopes to show the manuscript off at an event this summer or early fall.