Saturday, 29 May 2010

The doctrine of vital force

For many years the doctrine of 'vital force' held sway among chemists.  There appeared a clear distinction given the science of the times between inorganic and organic and this doctrine served as a boundary to enquiry.  Then it became clear it was a precis.  In 1828 Frederich Wohler heated an aqueous solution of two inorganic compounds amonium chloride and silver cyanate and obtained urea.  As urea could be obtained from both inorganic and living things the doctine of vital force could not hold  and Frederich Kekule coined the modern definition of organic chemistry as compounds containing carbon. 

With suddenly a new avenue to explore the floodgates opened and research effort poured into organic chemistry just as in modern times research effort has poured into carbon's cousin - silicon to give us the silicon chip.  There was an awakening which led to the development aromatherapy in the sense of the use of essential oils for therapeutic purposes in primary, secondary and tertiary medicine to obtain clinical results.  Alchemists had always held that essential oils obtained from plant matter contained the higher more volatile 'soul' of the plant as compared to the base matter in which it was fixed and used this knowledge to create medicines for prevention, cure and recovery.

The object of all this research and analysis of essential oils and herbal products was and remains synthesis.  The identification and then mass production of the active ingredient for example regenerative allantoin in comfrey. 

Science has gone one step further.  The better understanding allows for the production of entirely synthetic chemicals or drugs which are not found in living things at all but which have an impact on living cells.  Depending on the dose for example some drugs can obtain clinical results but also trigger cancer as these synthetic chemicals are not adapted to the body and have unexpected side effects such as thalidomide.

There therefore remains a place for essential oils and their controlled use by properly trained and motivated professional aromatherapists in particular for the treatment of stress and sleeplessness, many common ailments which are not as such medical conditions and afflictive emotions. 

Essential oils did not yield all their secrets.  We know that synthetic essential oils do not have the therapeutic effects of 'whole' freshly distilled oils.  This is because those effects may depend on constituents which present in tiny quantities and also the interaction of two or many more constituents rather than being a simple function of the oils headline ingredients (Valnet).  Essential oils continue to inspire.  This idea of the 'cocktail' of active ingredients which is used by plants apparently to maintain life has inspired research breakthroughs for example in AIDS treatment.

Returning to Carbon, as Battaglia writes (CGA 2004 p72) "With 107 elements other than carbon to choose from you would expect there to be many more inorganic than organic compounds but in fact the opposite is the case.....  The key to the chemical characteristics of carbon is in its configuration of electrons.  Carbon's electronic configuration makes it unique in the ability of its atoms to catenate (that is to bond and link up) with one another and other atoms particularly hydrogen and oxygen  in seemingly endless arrangements."
The arrangement of the atoms is used amongst other things by living things to store information which can be replicated for example in DNA.

Most of the communication systems in the body are chemical in nature. Cells (such as nerve cells, gland cells or blood cells), communicate with each other mainly by chemical substances produced and released by one particular type of cell and to which others are highly and specifically sensitive. Every cell in the body is continually responding to chemical messengers. This intricate communication system is vital and most drug action either mimic, augment or disrupt this communication system.

Alchemical doctrines such as mixtures of higher and lower still inform much of our interpretation and thinking about our world, those in it and our own selves. 'Vital force' is alive and well and still helping people interpret the world, communicate and live today.  At least until science throws further light on how things work.

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