UofT Home   Twitter
Text size: Text size: small (default)Text size: mediumText size: large
Other Campuses: UTM or UTSC

Search Chemistry website:   

Colloquium Schedule | Upcoming Events

Alchemy Symbols on the Lash Miller Building

Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto

The alchemy symbols on the outer walls of the Lash Miller Building at the corner of St Georgeand Willcocks Streets are a striking feature of the north-east entrances to the Department ofChemistry. While the symbols, together with their old French descriptors, are summarized in asomewhat inconspicuous poster in the lobby, there is no document that gives the Englishmeanings and provenances of the symbols. In view of the significant role the alchemy symbolsplayed in the early days of chemistry, I have prepared this synopsis to provide additionalinformation on these singular Lash Miller decorations.

There were some symbols that were not straightforward to identify from my own searches.Accordingly, I sought help from a number of sources, including the members of the Department.I was astonished, but very pleased, by the widespread enthusiasm my queries elicited, showingthat there was extensive interest in the topic. I would like to thank everyone who responded fortheir multiple inputs, which have been extremely helpful and which I have incorporated whereappropriate. There are too many to acknowledge each individually so here I thank allcollectively, but no less sincerely for that. However, I would like to express my particulargratitude to Professor Rob Batey for his support and invaluable input, and to David Stone andArmando Marquez for their painstaking contributions in providing the high resolution images ofthe symbols guide posted in the Lash Miller lobby from which the figure reproduced below wasderived.

There may well be further clarifications or error corrections needed, and I would be grateful ifviewers would email these to me.

Bryan Jones
University Professor Emeritus

The information poster in the Lash Miller Lobby provided by the architect in 1963 is shown below. They, and their old French names, are reputed to be from the 17th century. However, at least one of them (Huile de Christ) has been dated by an expert authority as being no earlier than 1750.

Brief Synopsis of the History of Alchemy and its Symbols

The beginnings of alchemy go back several millennia, and there are some confusions over its earliest foundations. There are indications that alchemy was studied in China well before the Christian era, but it is in Egypt that alchemy as it is known in western culture seems to have emerged, with the Egyptian king Hermes thought to be the founder of the art in ~1900 BCE. Little survives him, but the Emerald Tablet, allegedly found in his tomb by Alexander the Great, was regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art. The first appearance of the Emerald Tablet was in Arabic texts in the 6th-8th centuries CE, with the first Latin translation in the 12th century. Further translations followed, by Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Michael Maier, and others, including one by Isaac Newton in the 17th century. The Emerald Tablet was reputed to contain the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance allegedly capable of the transmutation of base metals into gold or silver, a topic which dominated the early history of alchemy but which fell into disrepute in the 14th century. Although alchemy symbols remained in some use to denote some elements and compounds until the 18th century, they began to be discarded as the foundations of modern chemistry emerged, starting in 1661 with the treatise The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle on the distinction between alchemy and chemistry, which arguably marks the beginning of the history of modern chemistry.

The alchemy symbols are closely linked with those of astrology. The connection between them can be traced to the 4th-5th centuries BCE, in the writings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The ancient Greeks believed in four basic elements to which they assigned symbols - earth Earth Symbol, water ∇, air Air Symbol and fire Δ, plus a fifth element – the ether. The astronomical symbols for the sun Sun 
Symbol and the moon Moon Symbol date back to antiquity, and became those for gold and silver respectively. Five other metals were associated with planets: copper with Venus Venus Symbol, iron with Mars Mars Symbol, tin with Jupiter Jupiter Symbol, mercury (quicksilver) with Mercury Mercury Symbol, and lead with Saturn Saturn Symbol. Mercury (the fluid connection between high and low), sulfur (the spirit of life) Sulfur 
Symbol and salt (base matter) Salt Symbol were regarded as the tria prima (the three primes). Symbols for other elements and compounds were then created, together with those for key processes such as sublimation, distillation, separation, mixing, etc. Materials of natural origin, of practical use, and of value in medicine dominate. There are frequently multiple symbols for any one species, often leading to confusion. I have not found any single alchemy symbols chart that is comprehensive. Symbols can be combined, as in oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) Sulfuric Symbol, from oil Oil Symbol and vitriol Vitriol Symbol Today, many of the symbols have been organized/collected into a unified code - see http://unicode.org/charts/PDF/U1F700.pdf.

Ofthe innumerable symbol charts available, two very extensive ones, with named symbols, are

Theabove synopsis has been assembled from multiple sources. The web abounds in alchemy links and books. If more detailed information is desired, the following links represent reasonable starting points:


Because it enables searching for symbols for element/compound, etc. names via detailed alphabetical indices, the link http://www.symbols.com/ provides a useful complement to other image-only alchemy symbol sites, such as GoogleImages Search.

The Lash Miller Alchemy Symbols

East Wall

SymbolEnglish Descriptors
Cupric Sulfate (Pentahydrate). Literally Blue Vitriol – used as a fungicide. Also known as bluestone. Vitriol was the compound obtained by distillation of various sulfates and that we now know is sulfuric acid. As long ago as 1500 BCE, the Egyptians used blue vitriol, and also green vitriol (ferrous sulfate), in the treatment of various diseases and ailments https://www.purestcolloids.com/history-copper.php.
Mercury Sublimate – Mercuric Chloride. Mercury compounds were known to the Chinese and ancient Egyptians, and used therapeutically by the Greeks in the 1st century CE. The medicinal value of mercuric chloride was recognized in Arabia soon after this but, being toxic, was used only topically as an ointment in the treatment of syphilis, together with non-toxic oral preparations of mercurous chloride (calomel), especially during the European outbreak of syphilis in the 15th century http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19831290
Natural Sulfur. This was widely known from antiquity from its volcanic origins, and from iron pyrites. It was used medicinally from ancient Egyptian times, in the1st century CE in Greece as a fumigant, and in traditional Chinese and early European medicine. It has been postulated that its medical benefits were due to its slow oxidation to sulfite – a mild antibacterial agent. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur#History
Phlogiston. This was postulated in 1667 by Becher, and clarified by Stahl in 1703, to be contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion, in an attempt to explain burning processes, which we now classify as oxidations. This theory ran into problems when it was shown experimentally that flammable metals such as magnesium gained mass on burning even though they were supposed to have lost phlogiston in the process. The theory ran into increasing dilemmas of credibility as experimental chemistry developed, requiring its devotees to create increasingly irrational modifications to the theory to account for the new results. The phlogiston theory gradually lost its adherents, which even included Joseph Priestley, but retained its dominance until in 1778 Lavoisier demonstrated that combustion required oxygen. This signaled the end of the phlogiston era. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston_theory
Cinnabar of Antimony. This was a sublimate prepared by heating together the antimony ore stibnite (composed of antimony trisulfide) with corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride) in a retort. First, butter of antimony (antimony trichloride) distilled over, and at higher temperature a red sublimate. This red sublimate was called cinnabar of antimony, but was in fact regular cinnabar, which is mercuric sulfide, the familiar red pigment vermillion. We are grateful to Professor Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins University) for his detailed clarification of the initially confusing meaning of this symbol.[The legend in the Lash Miller lobby mistakenly labels this as Cinaere d’Antimoine, but the word cinaere does not seem to exist in French and is evidently a misprint for cinabre. While cinaere could be from the Latin cinere = ashes, with the dipthong-e of old French, this does not lead to a reasonable alchemical interpretation].
Mercury. Liquid mercury was known to the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks. Romans and Hindus. It was used in medicine, usually as its chloride derivatives, as an insecticide, poison, or disinfectant, or topically in its toxic mercuric form, and orally as a purgative as mercurous chloride (calomel).

The element itself was also known as quicksilver, in recognition of its shine and mobility. Likewise, these were characteristics of the Roman god Mercury, hence the alchemical use of the planet’s astrological symbol for the metal. It was designated as one of the tria prima (three primes) of alchemy by Paracelcus (1493-1591), as the fluid connection between the High and the Low. While the metal itself does occur in nature, its largest natural source is the red ore cinnabar (mercuric sulfide), from which it is obtained by roasting in air.http://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/mercury/history.html
Steel. The method of making steel by using carbon to reduce iron ores was undoubtedly discovered accidently in iron preparation, as a result of carbon contamination from prehistoric charcoal fires in early iron ore smelting. The ancient Egyptians were skilled in metallurgy and made iron objects from meteorites in the 4th millennium BCE, and from iron ore by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. However, it was in India that steel making became advanced by the 6th century BCE (Wootz steel) and by 200 CE high quality steel was being produced. By the 1st century BCE the Chinese had discovered the secret of steel and in 5th century they adopted the Wootz steel methodology. In the 11th century they discovered how to use coke in place of charcoal in smelting. The switch from charcoal to coal as a fuel was pioneered in Roman Britain in the 2nd century. In Greece, Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) understood the difference between steel and the softer wrought iron. The medieval Islamic world had also developed similar skills by the 11th century, with Damascus steel being highly prized from 900 CE to 1750 CE . In contrast, European steel expertise did not develop until the 17th century. Blast furnaces existed in China in the 1st century CE, in Belgium in the Middle Ages, and in Britain by the 15th century. (It should be noted that blast furnaces as old as 2000 years have been reported in Tanzania). In 1709, in Britain, Abraham Darby (re)discovered how to convert coal to coke. Substitution of coke for charcoal in blast furnaces resulted in much increased efficiency and economy. By the mid-19th century Henry Bessemer showed that introducing oxygen could burn off some of the carbon in cast iron, allowing for large-scale production of cheap steel. The current oxygen-based process was introduced in the mid-1950s and now accounts for ~60% of steel production.
Ferric Oxide, literally Yellow of Iron. In alchemy, the use of the astrological symbol for Mars was used for iron, iron being regarded as a metal of strength and force, and Mars being the classical planet of energy and force. Ferric oxide was produced by roasting iron ore, and as long ago as 1500 BCE the Egyptians used iron oxide (powdered rust) to heal wounds.http://alchemylab.com/arcana.htm
Camphor. The name is derived from the French camphre (as in the symbol name shown), which itself comes from the medieval Latin camfora, the Arabic kafur, Sanskrit karpura, and ultimately from old Malay kapur barus. Barus was the Sumatran (Indonesian) port used by traders from India and the Middle East to ship the dried resin from the camphor trees native to that region. Camphor has a long history of use. The ancient Egyptians employed it in mummification, and in ancient and medieval Europe and Arabia it was used as a culinary ingredient and for flavouring. It was utilized in ancient Sumatra to treat sprains and inflammation and, in Europe in the 18th century (in admixture with opium), as an antitussive agent and analgesic. It is still used for flavouring, and as a weak, cooling, anesthetic and cough suppressant.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camphor
Tartar, potassium hydrogen tartrate (potassium bitartrate) was originally derived from grapes. Tartar was known to the Arabian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan in 800 CE. The modern preparation was developed by the Swedish pharmaceutical chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1769. (Scheele was an largely uncredited chemist who discovered several metals and organic acids before others, and was the first to discover oxygen (although Priestley published first) and chlorine before Humphrey Davy). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Wilhelm_ScheeleOilof tartar (a concentrated aqueous solution of potassium bitartrate) is an old preparation applied as a cosmetic at least up to the 13th century, and is still used for cleaning cloth and rusty metals, as well as in food preparation. Tartaric acid itself is also used in food and drink preparation, and in 1832 played a key role in the discovery of chirality by Biot. This was followed by the first production of (-)-levo-tartaric acid, via hand separation of (+) and (-)-ammonium sodium tartrate crystals, by Pasteur in 1847.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potassium_bitartrate
Oil of Christ. This is a very rare symbol that has appeared, without any description of properties or composition, in only one of the numerous alchemy charts viewed so far. http://www.matemius.fr/articles/alchimie/symboles-alchimiques-1.html
Its alchemical significance remains unclear at this time. We have consulted Professor Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins University) who has looked into this dilemma in depth. The following interpretations of what this alchemical symbol could mean incorporate his detailed scholarly analyses, for which we are very grateful.
The symbol appears to be very late addition to the list of alchemical symbols, certainly dating no earlier than 1750. Deciphering the symbol’s components provides clues to its possible meaning in that the three circles clearly come from the standard symbol for oil, and it is plausible that the top part could be interpreted as “CP”, signifying Christi Palmi . The symbol would then represent Oleum Christi Palmi - Oil of Palm of Christ, which is castor oil, widely used in the distant past as a healing agent.
The first recorded medicinal use of castor oil was by the ancient Egyptians in 1550 BCE in treating eye problems. Subsequently, it was known to the ancient Greeks as kiki and to the Romans as Palma Christi - the leaves of the castor oil plant being thought to resemble the Palm of Christ. Later, in Europe it was used in topical compresses to relieve inflammation, and in the 17th century as a bowel purgative. These uses persisted at least up to the mid-20th century. The therapeutic benefits of castor oil have been attributed to its major component, ricinoleic acid, and also somewhat to its minor component, oleic acid. Care must be taken to use only the cold pressed oil from castor beans since the residual mash contains the deadly toxin ricin, for which there is no antidote.
A non-medical use of castor oil was as a lubricant, especially for aircraft engines in the early 20th century. One lubricating oil formulated with castor oil was pioneered by a company founded in 1899 in London by Charles Wakefield. This oil was promoted under the name Castrol. The Wakefield company went on to become one of the world’s largest lubricating oil companies, and eventually renamed itself as Castrol Ltd.
While castor oil seems the most reasonable chemical match for this symbol, there are other less likely possibilities, such as that it represents Oil of Crystal. For centuries, healing properties have been attributed to preparations of various inorganic crystals or minerals in oils such as olive oil. There do not appear to be any scientific bases for these beliefs.
Perhaps least likely is the literal translation of Huile de Christ as Oil of Christ, for which term extensive searching has revealed nothing of medicinal benefit. It could be the ancient anointing oil used in the ordination of Jewish priests and consecration of temples. This was olive oil containing perfumes such as myrrh, different cinnamons (sweet and cassia), and Kaneh bosem (an aromatic cane growing in the Holy Land).
http://aurorasmessage.com/crystal_oils.html. Alternatively, it could refer to the oil used to anoint the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion, reported to be the perfume nard. (Nard is an aromatic oil derived from Himalayan plants of the lavender family).http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anointing_of_Jesus
Yellow Copper – likely cuprous oxide.
Copper compounds, including copper oxide, have been used medicinally since the second millennium BCE in Egypt, in ancient Greece since the 1st century BCE, by the Romans in the 1st century CE, in the 10th century in Persia, and in Europe up to the 20th centuryhttp://www.zptech.net/kbase-copper-1.html. Cuprous oxide is currently a component of some ship antifouling paints.
Oil of succinate. Succinic acid, spirit of amber, was obtained many centuries ago by distillation of amber.
Baltic amber has unique properties that have long been exploited in the treatment of a variety of medical conditions, including by Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), the father of medicine. Baltic amber contains up to 8% of succinic acid and it is now recognized that it is this component that is responsible for its beneficial properties. Even today, succinic acid is a key constituent of many medicines.
Urine. Urine has been used in medicine for millennia. In ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder recommended fresh urine for the treatment of sores, etc. while in the 17th century the father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, recommended the drinking of fresh urine for certain ailments. Thankfully, nowadays we have alternative forms of medication. Boyle also noted its value in dyeing and as an invisible ink. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/10/unusual-uses-of-urine.
Urine was also the first source of white phosphorus, prepared by the German alchemist Hennig Brand in1669 by heating dried urine in a retort. The fumes evolved were spontaneously combustible, but when collected in a sealed jar gave a white solid. Since this material glowed in the dark Brand named it phosphorus, from the Greek word phosphoros for “light bearer”.

West Wall

SymbolEnglish Descriptors
Nitre, or Saltpetre/Saltpeter. This is the mineral form of potassium or sodium nitrate. Potassium nitrate occurs as encrustations on cavern walls, in bat guano and in wood ashes, and sodium nitrate as the large deposits of Chilean saltpetre. Nitre has been recognized since ancient Egyptian and Greek times, Its name derives from the Egyptian netjeri, the Hebrew neteril, and the Greek nitron. (There is early historical confusion with the name natron (impure sodium carbonate)).
The first purification of potassium nitrate was in 1270 by the Syrian Hasan al-Rammah. This was then used in combination with sulfur and charcoal to make gunpowder. Gunpowder was first invented in China in the 9th century. Potassium and sodium nitrate have been used in food preservation since the Middle Ages and for a long time as fertilizers.
Flowers of Antimony. Antimony trioxide (SbO3) was usually prepared by roasting stibnite (an antimony sulfide (Sb2S3) - containingmineral) and condensing the white fumes formed. (The Sb elemental symbol comes from antimony’s Latin name Stibium, derived from the ancient Greek stibi which originated in ancient Egyptian).
Antimony trioxide is found in nature as valentinite and senarmontite. The first mention of antimony compounds was in 16th century BCE in Egypt as stibnite, which was used in Egypt as the black eye cosmetic kohl, certainly as early as 4000 BCE, and subsequently in Asia, the Middle East, India and parts of Africa. Today, antimony trioxide is the most valuable commercial antimony product, being used mainly in flame retardants.
Oil of Vitriol. Sulfuric acid. This was made by distilling green vitriol (ferrous sulfate) occurring in nature. While 100% sulfuric acid could not be obtained in this way, the product could be quite concentrated, capable of damaging skin and corroding most metals. Sulfates were termed vitriols, as in green vitriol (above) and blue vitriol (copper sulfate).
Sulfuric acid and its derivatives were first recorded in ancient Iraq around 600 BCE, but it was in ancient Greece in the 1st century CE that its origin and properties began to be documented. Persian alchemists also discussed vitriols during the 8th–14th centuries. Sulfuric acid was called oil of vitriol by medieval European alchemists on account of its preparation by roasting green vitriol. In the 17th century, Johann Glauber (of Glauber’s salt (Na2SO4) fame) devised a preparation of sulfuric acid by burning sulfur and saltpetre together with steam, and in London in 1736, Joshua Ward used this method for the first large-scale production of the acid. A modification by John Roebuck in 1746 gave a process that remained the standard for nearly 200 years. Further European improvements steadily increased the acid’s concentration until, back in Britain, in 1831 Peregrine Phillips developed a catalytic process for producing sulfur trioxide and concentrated sulfuric acid that is still used today to prepare most of the world’s sulfuric acid.
web counter