History of Scientific Women

Main achievements: Inventor of several kinds of chemical apparatus.

Mary or Maria the Jewess (Latin: Maria Prophetissima), also known as Mary the Prophetess, is an early alchemist who is known from the works of the Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis. On the basis of Zosimos's comments, she lived between the first and third centuries A.D. French, Taylor and Lippmann list her as one of the first alchemical writers, dating her works at no later than the first century.

She is credited with the invention of several kinds of chemical apparatus and is considered to be the first true alchemist of the Western world.

The primary source for the existence of "Mary the Jewess" within the context of alchemy is Zosimos of Panopolis, who wrote, in the 4th century, the oldest extant books on alchemy. Zosimos described several of Mary's experiments and instruments. In his writings, Mary is almost always mentioned as having lived in the past, and she is described as "one of the sages."

George Syncellus, a Byzantine chronicler of the 8th century, presented Mary as a teacher of Democritus, whom she had met in Memphis, Egypt, during the time of Pericles.

The 10th century Kitab al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim cited Mary as one of the 52 most famous alchemists and stated that she was able to prepare caput mortuum, a purple pigment.

The early medieval alchemical text ascribed to an otherwise unknown "Morienus Romanus" called her "Mary the Prophetess," and the Arabs knew her as the "Daughter of Plato" — a name which, in Western alchemical texts, was reserved for white sulfur.

Although none of Mary's writings have survived, some quotations credited to her are found in hermetic writings. The most notable of these are found in The Dialogue of Mary and Aros on the Magistery of Hermes, which is an extract made by an anonymous Christian philosopher. Operations are described in this document which would later become the basis of alchemy, such as leukosis (whitening) and xanthosis (yellowing). The document describes, for the first time, an acid salt and other acids. There are also several recipes for making gold from plants (mandragora, for example).

Several cryptic alchemical precepts have been attributed to Mary. Mary is said to have discovered hydrochloric acid, though this is not accepted by most science texts.

Mary, along with Agathodaemon, Pseudo-Democritus, and Hermes Trismegistus, was mentioned by Zosimos of Panopolis in his descriptions of certain devices, such as the tribikos, the kerotakis, and the bain-marie. But her contributions are disputed and not clear.

Tribikos: the tribikos was a kind of alembic with three arms that was used to obtain substances purified by distillation. It is not known whether Mary invented it, but Zosimos credits the first description of the instrument to her. It is still used today in alchemy and chemistry labs. In her writings (quoted by Zosimos), she recommends that the copper or bronze used to make the tubes should be the thickness of a frying pan and that the joints between the tubes and the still-head should be sealed with flour paste.

Kerotakis: an alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Chemical Heritage Foundation. The kerotakis is a device used to heat substances used in alchemy and to collect vapors. It is an airtight container with a sheet of copper upon its upper side. When working properly, all its joints form a tight vacuum. The use of such sealed containers in the hermetic arts led to the term "hermetically sealed." The kerotakis was said to be a replication of the process of the formation of gold that was occurring in the bowels of the earth.

This instrument was later modified by the German chemist Franz von Soxhlet in 1879 to create the extractor that bears his name, the Soxhlet extractor.

Bain-marie: Mary's name survives in her invention of the bain-marie (Mary's Bath), which limits the maximum temperature of a container and its contents to the boiling point of a separate liquid: essentially a double boiler. It is extensively used in chemical processes for which a gentle heat is necessary. This term was introduced by Arnold of Villanova in the 14th century. The bain-marie is also used for cooking food.

Source: Wikipedia