Rare Book Highlights: ISU’s oldest book in chemistry

Pulling a book of the shelf. Book is bound in vellum with a leather title label.

Pulling the book off the shelf.

Let’s take another trip back into the rare book stacks to find the library’s oldest book in chemistry. I’m defining chemistry broadly, here, to include the precursor to chemistry, alchemy. Basically, I’m looking at everything we have that falls under the Library of Congress Subclass QD. And, in fact, when we check the shelves, the oldest book in the QD section is Geberi philosophi ac alchimistae, maximi, De alchimia libri tres, or The Three Books on Alchemy by Geber, the Great Philosopher and Alchemist, printed in 1529.

Book's title page has black and white illustration showing a large piece of chemical equipment in the center foreground. In the background are two figures working at a table with different smaller pieces of chemical equipment.

Book’s title page.

Geber is the Latinization of Jabir ibn Hayyan (circa 721–815), thought to have been born near Tus, in modern-day Iran. Around 3,000 works on a wide range of topics, including alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, and philosophy, are attributed to Jabir. Scholars agree that one man could not have written all of these works on such a wide range of topics. Still, he seems to be an important figure in Arab chemistry, and he is credited with a number of significant contributions to the field, including describing chemical processes such as crystallization and distillation, and discovering aqua regia, a mix of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, which is able to dissolve gold.


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The book we are examining today is translated into Latin. It contains three parts: examining the properties of metals, alchemical techniques, and the properties of the planets.

Notes on the flyleaf signed by Edward Stark indicate which works of Jabir, or Geber, are included here, including information on which translations are used. I’m not sure who Edward Stark is, but I presume he was a previous owner. Clearly, he has a large knowledge of the body of work attributed to Geber as well as the various Latin translations of those works. From his notes, it seems that this book is a compilation of incomplete pieces of Geber’s works.

Flyleaf reads: “This Book contains the Summa Perfectionis of Geber. See also Manget I. 519 & Alohemiae Gever Arabis 1545 pp 16-164 & Russell’s Translation 1678 pp 22-238. Pages 56-61 do not seem to belong to Geber at all. Pages 61a-66 contain Geber’s Investigatione perfections nearly the same as that in Alchemiciae Geber Arabis 1545 pp. 1-15. Neither this book nor Manget appear to have teh Liber Formacum. The latter contains Geber’s Testamentum [I p 562]. Edward Stark”

Our individual copy is bound in vellum with paste paper pastedown fly leaves in the front and rear.

Inside cover of book covered in a paper that has large blocks of colors (red, blue, gold, and black) that have been sponged onto the surface of the paper.

Pastepaper was used on the inside of the cover.

This may not have been the original binding, since you can see that the tops of the pages have been trimmed. See the image where the words at the very top of the page are almost entirely cut off? It should read, “Tertius,” indicating the third part in the book.

View of an open book. At the top of the right page, you can see only the bottom portion of letters forming the word "Tertius." The tops of the letters have been trimmed off.

Top edge of pages have been trimmed in a rebinding.

This book has been very well used, with underlinings and marginal markings appearing throughout the book. There is no indicating, unfortunately, as to who the early owner may have been. At any rate, this early reader certainly found many things of interest in the text!

Page of text. Several lines across teh page have been underlined in pen.

A well-underlined text.


ISU’s oldest book in chemistry

Jabir ibn Hayyan. Geberi philosophi ac alchimistae, maximi, De alchimia libri tres. Johannis Grieninger, 1529. Call number: QD25 .J113g

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Amr, Samir S. and Abdelghani Tbakhi. “Jabir ibn Hayyan.” Annals of Saudi Medicine, vol. 27, no. 1 (Jan-Feb 2007): 52-53. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6077026/

Marshall, Vicki. “Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan.” 175 Faces of Chemistry: Celebrating Diversity in Science, Royal Society of Chemistry, published June 2014.  http://www.rsc.org/diversity/175-faces/all-faces/abu-musa-jabir-ibn-hayyan/

Newman, William R. “Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated August 3, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abu-Musa-Jabir-ibn-Hayyan

“The Three Books on Alchemy by Geber, the Great Philosopher and Alchemist.” World Digital Library, updated April 3, 2018. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10675/

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