Sir Kenelm Digby (1601–1665) was an English alchemist. Sir Kenelm Digby was a colorful character, though of modest achievement in Alchemy. He is best known for his cures based on sympathetic Magic. He was an original member of the Royal Society and was the first to note the importance of “vital air,” or oxygen, to plants. His primary interests lay in alchemy and Astrology.
Born on July 11, 1603, Digby was the oldest son of Sir Everard Dibgy. His father was executed for conspiracy, and most of his fortune was confiscated by the Crown. Son Digby nonetheless retained enough to live well. He attended Worcester College and was reputed to learn 10 to 12 languages.
In 1625 he married his childhood sweetheart, Venetia Stanley, and enjoyed a happy marriage. In 1627 he engaged in pirating on the Mediterranean and had some spectacular successes that earned him royal commendations and, undoubtedly, a financial reward.
But the high days came to an end in 1633 when Venetia died and Digby, crushed, retired to Gresham College in London. There he immersed himself in medicine, chemistry, and alchemy. He collected manuscripts of purported alchemical secrets and conducted experiments.
His alchemical efforts met with little success, and some considered him to be credulous and deceitful. He had better success with medical “cures,” including a weapon-salve (see also ointments) and a cure for toothache. The toothache remedy consisted of scratching the gums near the infected tooth with an iron nail and then hammering the nail into a wooden beam.
After his death in 1665, one of his alchemy assistants, Georg Hartmann, published a collection of Digby’s “rare chymical secrets.”
- Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.