Students Study Medieval Alchemy, Distill Fragrances

DSC_5694 As part of their Golden Age of Islam unit, Ross eighth graders recently learned about medieval alchemists and the processes they established that were critical to the evolution of the science of chemistry. Last week, they put their new knowledge to the test by distilling their own fragrances.

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Before attempting the distillations, students discussed the purpose of the Islamic alembic (a tool used for distillation) and the physical properties of solids, liquids, and gases. They also explored how changes in temperature and pressure affect the state of matter, making distillation possible. Then, using a simple alembic still, they created their own fragrances incorporating organic materials such as fruit and herbs.

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Eighth grader India Galesi-Grant created an extract of nutmeg, cardamom, vanilla, eucalyptus, pine needles, and cloves. She chose these ingredients after discovering in her research that this combination of ingredients is exactly what medieval Islamic doctors used to help purify the air, purify the body from evil, and relieve someone suffering a cold. India said this concoction was also sold as a perfume in the markets for a very high price. She tried to recreate this essence with her lab partner Ana Contreras, and it was mostly successful.

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Through the process, students learned that alchemy led to the isolation of chemical compounds and elements, as well as the creation of acids and solvents, gunpowder, cheese, and inks and paints. “The distillation lab exercise is important to the students’ understanding of medieval alchemists’ contribution to science,” said Science teacher Anna Strong.

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While extracting their fragrances, students carefully recorded the process and changes in the state of the matter, drawing a connection to one of the most famous Islamic alchemists, Jabir ibn Hayyan, who transformed alchemy through his use of scientific methodology and investigation and is often referred to as “the father of chemistry.”

Students also connected the distillation exercise to the spiritual aspects of medieval alchemy, learning that Islamic alchemists were motivated by a requirement for purity of mind, body, and soul. As with the physical distillation process that increases the purity of a fermented solution, spiritual distillation seeks to eliminate metaphysical impurities.

“The distillation lab work really brings their studies of this pivotal period in the history of chemistry to life,” Anna said.