Feature Christmas: Diagnosis

A gold elixir of youth in the 16th century French court

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b5311 (Published 16 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5311
  1. Philippe Charlier, Forensic medical examiner and archaeologist1,
  2. Joël Poupon, Biological toxicologist2,
  3. Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, Radiologist3,
  4. Jean-François Saliège, Professor of environmental sciences and climatology (retired)4,
  5. Dominique Favier, Chemist specialising in fragrances and flavours5,
  6. Christine Keyser, Specialist in forensic genetics6,
  7. Bertrand Ludes, Professor of legal medicine6
  1. 1Raymond Poincaré Hospital, Garches, France
  2. 2Lariboisière Hospital, Paris, France
  3. 3Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, Fance
  4. 4Institute of Geophysics, Paris, France
  5. 5IFF France International Flavors and Fragrances, Asnières, France
  6. 6Institute of Legal Medicine, Strasbourg, France
  1. Correspondence to: ph_charlier{at}yahoo.fr

    Did gold play a part in the death of a 16th century French courtesan and favourite of Henri II?

    Gold’s supposed powers of regeneration go back to antiquity. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79)1 describes the preparation of two remedies using gold and their therapeutic properties. In the 13th century, alchemists like Michael Scot, Roger Bacon, and Arnaud de Villeneuve wrote about “Aurum potabile”—drinkable gold—and how to obtain it.

    Drinkable gold

    Aurum potabile included many gold preparations, from almost pure water to real gold solutions prepared using nitrohydrochloric acid. Some types of drinkable gold were made by distilling alcohol solutions with sulphuric acid. During the process diethyl ether was made and this dissolved gold chloride, which formed a yellow coloured supernatant phase above a colourless aqueous phase.2 This was considered by some to be true drinkable gold.3

    Drinkable gold was well known in the 16th century French Court, and Alexandre de la Tourette dedicated his book on the subject to King Henri III.4 In the 17th century, many doctors and chemists like Jean Beguin and Christophe Glaser published gold recipes, including drinkable gold, in their chemistry manuals.5 6

    A case of chronic gold poisoning in the 16th century

    In 2008, during an archaeological dig in the cemetery of Anet in France, skeletons were excavated near a monument to Diane de Poitiers. She was a favourite of King Henri II despite being 20 years his senior.7 Diane was a particularly athletic woman, who swam, hunted, and rode horses every day. She died in 1566 when she was 66 years old, but the exact circumstances of her death are unknown. It is thought that the mass grave that was found during the excavations was where Diane’s mummified remains were thrown after revolutionists opened her tomb in 1795.8

    Identifying the remains of Diane de Poitiers

    Diane de Poitiers’ remains were identified from the other desecrated skeletons by some physical particularities: the preserved fragments of the pelvis were those of a woman; severe arthritic lesions and important ante mortem tooth loss 7 showed that she was old; and consolidated tibia and fibula fractures corresponded to those Diane sustained in a riding accident in 1565, and for which Ambroise Paré treated her. The skull showed a perfectly concordant superposition of the mandible and left jawbone when compared with the last portrait of Diane by François Clouet.9

    When fragments of bone still covered by deposits of putrefaction fluid10 were carbon dated,11 they gave aberrant results (two sigma calibrated results: AD 900 to 920 and AD 950 to 1040). These results indicated that the remains had been aged by the bitumen during embalming. This was confirmed by a molecular analysis of putrefaction fluid deposits by gas chromatography mass spectrometry after an extraction with cyclohexane. The analysis showed the presence of linear alkanes and alkenes that were directly related to the fragmentation of the bitumen.

    Analysing the hair

    When the graves had been desecrated during the French revolution, some of Diane’s hair had been preserved at the castle in Anet.8 Analysis of this hair from the castle and the hair from the remains using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry showed a great concentration of gold in the putrefaction fluid deposits (111 ng/g), and demonstrated the homogeneity of the two sets of samples. Elemental analyses of this hair showed a gold concentration (about 10 000 ng/g) about 500 times the actual reference values (median 20 ng/g; range: 1 to 50 ng/g 12). Hair thinning is a symptom of chronic gold intoxification and Diane’s hair diameter was around 65µm (normal diameter 80-90µm) (see figure )13 14 Diane is known to have undergone a long course gold treatment hoping it was an elixir of youth. Brantôme in Vies des Dames illustres, francaises et etrangers wrote of her, “I saw her at seventy years of age beautiful of face, also fresh and also pleasant as she had been at thirty years of age... and especially she had a very large whiteness without any make-up. But it is said well that, every morning, she used some drinks made up of drinkable gold and other drugs which I do not know given by good doctors and subtle apothecaries.”15

    Figure1

    Diane de Poitiers’ hairs (× 40) showing hair thinning and no surface deposits

    CREDIT: J. POUPON AND P CHARLIER

    Evidence from chrysotherapy

    When used to treat rheumatoid arthritis the half life of gold is 20 days, 16 which may lead to gold accumulating in tissues, including hair. Gottlieb and colleagues 17 found a concentration of 5000 ng/g in the hair of one patient treated with aurothioglucose.17 In some patients receiving gold sodium thiomalate, levels in hair were more than 1500 ng/g.18 Recently, we reported a case of an acute intoxication after less than a month of treatment with sodium aurothiopropanolsulphonate. 19 When the treatment was stopped, gold levels were 34 278 ng/g dry tissue in liver and 158 ng/g in the hair. We might expect chronic intoxication in Diane’s case, which would explain the high levels of gold in the hair compared with gold residues in other tissues.

    Other explanations

    Two other hypotheses may explain the relatively low levels of gold measured in the tissue residues. Firstly, she may have stopped taking gold in the few days or weeks before death, and secondly her skeleton had been buried for two centuries.

    Mercury was used by alchemists to purify gold and prepare some gold remedies, and analysis of Diane’s remains showed concentrations of mercury in the hair at twice the upper limits of normal. External contamination of the remains of the body by gold jewellery does not seem plausible. Not being a queen, Diane de Poitiers would not have worn a crown, and it is hard to see how other jewellery could have contaminated the hair and tissues. Indeed, after her death, Diane was embalmed so her body dried without putrefying. When the coffin was opened in 1795 the body appeared intact.8 20 Gold is not included in the list of substances used during the embalming process.21

    Under microscopic examination, the hairs were clean and no superficial deposits were seen. Any deposits, especially containing lead, may have occurred as a result of the reaction between the body fluids and the lead of the sarcophagus. Such lead deposits are well documented in the case of Agnès Sorel.22 After the desecration of her grave, only her body, without any clothes or jewellery, was buried in the cemetery8 so no contamination could have occurred since then. Moreover, hair we analysed was taken just before the burial and would have not been in contact with soil or pollutant.

    Forever young?

    We have identified the remains of Diane de Poitiers to a high degree of confidence. We believe that she drank gold, which is compatible with Brantôme’s report.15 The high concentrations of gold in her hair indicate that she could have died of chronic intoxication with gold.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5311

    Footnotes

    • Competing interests: None declared.

    • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed

    References