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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 11. Sir Kenelm Digby

A curiously versatile amateur in science was Sir Kenelm Digby, of whom mention has already been made elsewhere. Like most prominent men of his time, he intervened in theological logical questions, besides playing an active part in public affairs. He was an original member of the Royal Society, but, although he is reported to have been the first to record the importance of the “vital air”—we now call it oxygen—to plants, and although he had gifts of observation, his work lay largely in the paths of alchemy and astrology, and he seems to have had recourse to a lively imagination in estimating the results of his experiments. He trafficked in the transmutation of metals, and his name was long associated with a certain “powder of sympathy” which, like the “absent treatment” of the twentieth century practitioners of Christian science, “acted at a distance.” Evelyn looked on him as a quack, “a teller of strange things,” and lady Fanshawe refers to his infirmity of lying; he was certainly a great talker. Still, other men of his epoch spoke well of him and his conversation was doubtless stimulating if profuse.