Tuesday, April 11, 2017

J for Mary the Jewess: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Mary the Jewess lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries. Her full name was Maria Hebraea. Known as the first true alchemist in the western world, we mostly know of Mary’s existence and accomplishments through the writings of others. None of Mary’s writings survived.

Zosimos of Panopolis, a 5th century Greek historian, wrote about Mary in his books on alchemy and described several of her experiments and instruments used. Zosimos believed that alchemy had been introduced to the world by the Jews and called Mary “one of the sages” in the field.

According to Zosimos the Jewish people had acquired the secret of alchemy and gold-making through "dishonest means" from the Egyptians. There is much written on this topic that includes biblical references and names (too much to discuss here), but if interested, click the source link below on the history of alchemy. 

Mary was a teacher and follower of Democritus, a Greek philosopher considered by some to be the “father of modern science” and known for his "formulation of an atomic theory of the universe." Mary was particularly interested in a purple pigment (caput mortuum) she had concocted and apparently spent a lot of time studying this substance. She was known by many as “Mary the Prophetess,” whereas in the middle east the Arabs dubbed her the “Daughter of Plato." Historically, she is one of history's 52 most famous alchemists. 

Merriam-Webster defines alchemy as "a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life." 

Alchemical operations, such a leukosis (whitening) and xanthosis (yellowing), were all part of Mary's experience as an alchemist, and she is credited with inventing (or at least influencing) the devices used in processes. Writings mention the use of acid salt, other acids, and the making of gold from plants, and an alchemical precept called “the union of opposites.” As such, Mary has been unofficially credited with discovering hydrochloric acid . . . and the following.

Two devices credited (based on writings) to Mary:

  • Tribikos:

This device was (and still is) used to collect substances purified by distillation. Mary was the first to describe its use.

    Mary's Bath
  • Kerotakis: (or Mary's oven)

Used to collect vapors and heat substances for alchemy.

Mary’s one undisputed invention:

  • Bain-marie (or Mary’s Bath)
For chemical processes when gentle heat is required. 
Can also be used to cook food.


 

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_the_Jewess;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democritus 

http://historyofalchemy.com/list-of-alchemists/miriam-the-jewess/ 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democritus

18 comments:

  1. Thank you for this piece of history, that made me feel proud! A woman scientist from long long ago and having so many achievements..simply a great person!
    -------------------------------
    Anagha from Team MocktailMommies
    Collage Of Life

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    1. Thank you, and nice to meet you, Anagha :) Women in science today deserve credit too. Unfortunately, too many are discouraged or feel out of place in the science fields.

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  2. Another great Woman of history wonderfully written. Well done on the "J" letter.

    Yvonne.

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    1. Thank you. I'm trying to make this enjoyable to read but not too technical.

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  3. Thanks Sharon, so interesting - these alchemists of old knew a thing or three.

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  4. Once you know about this lady, you can't look at a bain-marie in a food shop without a private chuckle. Who would have thought that such an everyday thing would hark back to the early days of chemistry? But then, most basic stuff in the chemistry lab goes back to the kitchen anyway. Women invented it!

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    1. Well now, that's a good point. I'll look at my kitchen a bit differently today!

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  5. Hi Sharon - what an amazing woman she was ... fascinating range of information - definitely worth knowing about and no wonder she falls within the list of the 52 best known alchemists. The alchemists certainly knew how to stretch boundaries and find new things ...

    Love Sue's comment - you'll never be able to look at a bain-marie again without of Mary the Jewess ...

    Well done - cheers Hilary

    http://positiveletters.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/j-is-for-jellicles.html

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    1. Hi Hilary. Thanks! Your comment makes me wonder who the other 51 alchemists are. There are numerous nonfiction books and chapters in books written on the subject, and novelists have had a lot of fun incorporating alchemy in their stories. I'm developing a 'reader's interest' in these books.

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  6. Finally! somebody I have heard/read about! :) A lady of some substance, she was.

    Nilanjana
    Madly-in-Verse

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    1. I'm not surprised you have heard of her. There was plenty of information about Mary online. Definitely a woman of substance.

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  7. Almost 2,000 years ago and we still use her inventions! I think that's pretty cool. I'm learning quite a bit

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    1. Put that way, she's incredible. I've learned more about alchemy too.

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  8. As a former culinary student I have often wondered where the term bain marie came from. Now I know.

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    1. A culinary student? How fun. That had to have been interesting.

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  9. I don't recall ever hearing of her before. This was a fascinating post and I learned a lot too. :) Thanks for sharing!
    ~Jess

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    1. Same here. Thank you. I would love to learn more about her.

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