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Starkey [Stirk], George

1. Dates
Born: Bermuda, 8 or 9 June 1628
Died: London, 1665
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 37
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric
George Stirk was a Puritan minister of Scottish origin in Bermuda.
No clear information on financial status. We are told that his salary of 40 was often in arrears. He died when Starkey was nine years old. However, Starkey did obtain an education.
3. Nationality
Birth: English colonial (Bermuda)
Career: English colonial and English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Harvard, M.A.
Harvard College, 1643-6; B.A., 1646; M.A. sometime before 1650, probably 1649.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist
His father was a stout Calvinist, and Starkey, who moved to England when the Puritans were in power, moved immediately into the Puritan circle of Hartlib. He was described as a Presbyterian.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Alchemy, Iatrochemistry
Starkey was the immensely influential Eirenaeus Philalethes, whose treatises circulated in manuscript and were published mostly after his death--especially The Marrow of Alchemy, 1654, Introitus apertus, 1667, and Ripley Reviv'd, 1678. He also published alchemical works in his own name--Natures Explication and Helmont's Vindication, 1657, and Pyrotechny Asserted, 1658.
Starkey was also a Helmontian who entered vigorously into the defense of Helmontian medicine with a number of pamphlets in the late 50s and early 60s.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine
Secondary: Patronage, Miscellaneous, Apothecary
Medical practice at Boston, 1646-50, in England, 1650-65.
He relied on John Winthrop, Jr. for books, chemicals and apparatus when he was in Boston.
Starkey moved to England in 1650 and almost immediately obtained the support, first of Hartlib, and then of Boyle who subsidized his experiments in the early 50s, beginning as early as 1651.
In 1655-6 he worked for a salary in a metallugical enterprise in Bristol, employing his chemical knowledge in the refining of precious metals. I have no category that corresponds to this; I list it under Miscellaneous.
As a Helmontian physician, Starkey made and marketed a variety of medicines.
It is far from clear that he was very successful at all of this. The final decade of his life was apparently a constant struggle with grinding poverty.
He died sometime in 1665, having contacted the plague while treating its victimes.
8. Patronage
Types: Government Official, Scientist, City Magistrate
Partrick Copeland, a minister in Bermuda, recommended him to John Winthrop; without more information I am not ready to call this patronage, though possibly it was.
I am uncertain of how to classify Winthrop, but governmental official seems most accurate.
See reference above to Boyle.
Starkey dedicated Natures Explication and Helmont's Vindication, 1657, to Robert Tichborne, the Puritan Lord Mayor of London. (Tichborne was a regicide.)
In 1660 Starkey, who had been associated with Hartlib's Puritan circle, suddenly produced three royalist tracts, which he dedicated to Charles II, the Duke of York, and two royalist aldermen of London. Until I get evidence to the contrary, I am not going to count these dedications as evidence of patronage; they appear, on the contrary, as efforts to ingratiate himself with the new order.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology, Chemistry, Metallurgy
Starkey was a vigorous proponent of Helmontian medicine, and he was apparently the inventor of some new ones. With Boyle he worked at developing an ens veneris, a copper compound they believed to be an efficacious medicine. His pamphlet, George Starkey's Pill Vindicated, seems to speak to one of his medicines.
Newman calls him the inventor of drugs, dyes, perfumes, and philosophical mercuries. He developed a method of "augmenting" (i.e., multiplying) saltpeter. He produced what was called Starkey's soap.
Although it is difficult to distinguish the activity from alchemy, he did work on methods of refining gold and silver by the use of mercury, a process long in use in the Spanish colonies but just being introduced into Europe at that time.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Friendship with John Winthrop, Jr. Connection with S. Hartlib's circle, from 1650, and with Boyle. Friendship with John Allen.
He was one of the Helmontians who organized the Society of Chymical Physicians in 1665.
  1. Ronald S. Wilkinson, "George Starkey, Physician and Alchemist," Ambix 11 (1963), 121-52.
  2. J.L. Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, (Cambridge, Mass., 1873).
  3. William Newman, "Newton's Clavis as Starkey's Key," Ambix, 1987, pp. 564-74.
  4. William Newman, Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an Alchemist of Harvard in the Scientific Revolution. I have read this in manuscript, but it should be published very soon.
  5. It supplants all existing literature on Starkey, and also provides a guide to that fairly extensive literature.
  6. Not consulted: Harold Jantz, "America's First Cosmopolitan," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 84 (1973), 3-24.
  7. William Newman, "Prophecy and Alchemy: The Origin of Eirenaeus Philalethes," Ambix, Nov. 1990, pp. 97-115.
  8. George Turnbull, "George Stirk, Philosopher by Fire, (1628?- 1665)," Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Publications, 38 (Transactions 1949), 219-51.
  9. Ronald Sterne Wilkinson, "Some Bibliographical Puzzles Concerning George Starkey," Ambix, 20 (1973), 235-44.
  10. Ronald Sterne Wilkinson, "The Hartlib Papers and Seventeenth Century Chemistry, Part II: George Starkey," Ambix, 17 (1970), 85-110.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
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