Mike Zuber’s research awarded two prizes

30 Apr 2020

Mike ZuberSince joining IASH in early 2019, Dr Mike A. Zuber’s research has received two awards: the 2020 Partington Prize of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry and the 2019 Thesis Prize of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism.

Awarded every three years only and named after distinguished British historian of chemistry J. R. Partington, the former recognizes Mike’s paper “Alchemical Promise, the Fraud Narrative, and the History of Science from Below: A German Adept’s Encounter with Robert Boyle and Ambrose Godfrey.” It presents the story of Peter Moritz, a salt worker and heretic exiled from his native Germany who spent his last years in England. When Moritz arrived in London, he found himself introduced to Robert Boyle, the eminent natural philosopher, experimentalist, and “father of modern chemistry” known for his law on gas pressure. Since the alchemist spoke neither English nor Latin, he could only communicate with Boyle through an interpreter. As Boyle’s laboratory assistant Ambrose Godfrey was a German immigrant himself, he took on that role.

Together with former IASH scholar Dr Leigh Penman, Mike previously identified Moritz as the anonymous “Crosey-Crucian” mentioned in a lost manuscript by Godfrey. The account of Boyle’s assistant describes Moritz as a generic example of alchemical fraud. However, a long letter among Moritz’s papers at the British Library in London addresses Boyle himself. It presents a more complicated situation that allows for explanations other than deception. Questions of laboratory competence, theoretical preferences, and the relationship between scientific authority and financial responsibility all contributed to the disagreements between Moritz, Boyle, and Godfrey. Mike shows that the fraud narrative casting doubt on the claims of alchemical practitioners could play the role of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More importantly, Mike’s paper shows how “the history of science from below” can add depth to our understanding of past events. “Everyone has heard of Robert Boyle,” Mike says, “yet Moritz’s name remained unknown for more than three centuries. It was fascinating for me to see how one of the biggest names in the history of science interacted with a no-name.” The article will be published in the journal Ambix in due course.

Dr Mike A. Zuber receives the ESSWE Thesis Prize 2019 from the society’s president Professor Andreas B. Kilcher. © Mriganka Mukhopadhyay.
Dr Mike A. Zuber receives the ESSWE Thesis Prize 2019 from the society’s president Professor Andreas B. Kilcher. © Mriganka Mukhopadhyay.

Back in July 2019 Mike’s doctoral thesis “Spiritual Alchemy from the Age of Jacob Boehme to Mary Anne Atwood, 1600–1900” was honoured with the biennial ESSWE Thesis Prize. It recognizes the best thesis in the academic study of western esotericism, an area of religious studies exploring figures and movements rejected by mainstream culture. Two years after Mike had defended his thesis at the University of Amsterdam, he returned to receive the award and gave a plenary lecture at a conference. A shortened version of Mike’s thesis is under contract with Oxford University Press.