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On Bain Marie

Nina Czegledy     print
The great chemist Maria the Jewess has been pretty well lost in the blur of ancient history. Most of what we know about her comes from the Egyptian alchemist Zosimos, who wrote in the late days of the Roman Empire, 500 years after Maria lived. Among other things, Zosimos talks about her invention of the kerotakis.

Maria invented many types of stills and reflux condensers. The kerotakis device was one in which she could boil mercury or sulfur and use its condensing vapor to heat copper or lead in a pan above. It was a kind of high-temperature double boiler.

Remember how a double boiler works: It has an upper pan where you cook food, nested in a lower pan of boiling water. The food stays at the same temperature as the steam condensing under it -- 100 degrees C. And so the one reference to Maria in the modern world is the French word for a double boiler. They call it a Bain Marie -- Maria's bath.

Maria gave us far more than just the double boiler -- significant as that is. She founded an important school of chemistry in the late 3rd century BC. She worked a little after Euclid. She could well have known Archimedes in Alexandria.




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