Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 82.djvu/336

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
332
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

GOETHE AND THE CHEMISTS
By ROY TEMPLE HOUSE

NORMAN, OKLA.

WE learn from "Dichtung und Wahrheit" that when the young Goethe came home ill from the University of Leipzig in 1768, he fell under the influence of a physician who claimed to have found an infallible panacea which he did not dare use because he was afraid of legal action against him. His young patient was suddenly seized with an attack of violent illness which threatened his life, and the physician was persuaded to use his mysterious drug, with the result that the young man at once began to mend and soon recovered. This experience was the beginning of Goethe's infatuation for alchemy, which began fantastically enough—although we have no occasion to quarrel with it when we remember its influence on "Faust" and "Die Wahlverwaudschaften"—but became in the course of time a serious and profitable interest in chemical investigation. Although he was never a thoroughly grounded chemist himself, his marvelous skill in forming mutually profitable partnerships with specialists made his chemical activity of real and great significance.

Established at Weimar as an official member of the government, he early made friends with the interesting court apothecary, Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Buchholz. This gentleman had studied medicine and received his medical degree, but after leaving school had devoted himself to pharmacy and had bought what was then the only apothecary shop in Weimar. He was a prosperous and jovial man of the world and played an important part in the social life of the little capital, but he was none the less a genuine scientist, and Goethe's debt to him was a considerable one, as he himself admits in the narrative entitled "Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums" which closes the "Metamorphose der Pflanzen." Buchholz kept up a large garden which contained, we are told, "not only the herbs which he needed for his business, but rare and newly discovered plants." He seems to have kept himself well informed as to new discoveries and developments in his own and related sciences, and when the Montgolfier brothers sent up their balloon from Avignon in 1783, Buchholz tried a similar experiment at Weimar; but Goethe wrote his friend Knebel, describing the first attempt: "He torments the air in vain; the balls refuse to rise." His later efforts seem to have been crowned with success, to the astonishment of the multitude and the distress of the pigeons; and Goethe,