Feature Christmas: Diagnosis

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

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b5311 (Published 16 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5311

“AURUM POTABLE”: THE “DRINKABLE GOLD OF THE ALCHEMISTS”

EDITOR – Chapter 32 of Exodus narrated that when Moses was up on the
mountain, meeting with the Lord, his people grew impatient. "And when the
people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people
gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us
gods, which shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man that brought us
up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.'" (Exodus
32:1) They made a golden calf and substituted it for the Lord, saying it
was what brought them "out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4b). After
receiving the Ten Commandments from the Lord, Moses came down from the
mountain. He saw the people worshipping the golden calf they had made.
"Moses’ anger waxed hot." (Exodus 32:19) He took the golden calf, burned
it in fire, ground it into powder and sprinkled it upon the water. Moses
"made the children of Israel drink of it." (Exodus 32: 20) The powder
Moses sprinkled upon the water was 'gold dust'.

From the context of the passage, drinking the 'gold dust' seems to
have been some sort of punishment that was also used for suspicious
adulteress women since they believed that God equated worshipping idols
with adultery. Although in the Bible drinking gold seems to be a penalty,
gold has a long history as a therapeutic agent, first as the triturated
metal, then as a soluble salt made by the alchemists and used as an elixir
of life, later incorporated into pharmacopoeias for various illnesses,
currently used to treat selected medical conditions.

Historically one of the most challenging areas in alchemy has been
the production of potable gold. Since ancient time alchemists were aimed
to profit of its great therapeutic value that was supposed because of this
metal’s indestructibility. Gold was known to be insoluble in water and
other solvents available to physicians. Gold in a form that was soluble in
water has been searched during centuries.

Success in this was achieved in the eighth century A.D. by the
Arabian alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber). By combining hydrochloric and
nitric acid, Jabir invented aqua regia [1], one of the few substances that
can dissolve gold. Besides its obvious applications to gold extraction and
purification, this discovery would fuel the dreams and despair of
alchemists for the next thousand years. European alchemists inherited
these secrets written in two manuscripts from the ninth and tenth
centuries that still exist. In particular, the records of famous medieval
alchemists like Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim
(known as Paracelsus, 1493 - 1541) and Johan Isaäc Hollandus report
about a mysterious life elixir with almost unbelievably successful
curative qualities known as “Aurum Potabile” (the “drinkable gold of the
alchemists”) [2]. It was made from pure gold, liquefied in a secret way
and thoroughly processed in the laboratory for a couple of months [3].

Alchemists like Michael Scot, Roger Bacon, and Arnaud de Villeneuve
had already written about “Aurum potabile” and how to obtain it already in
the thirteenth century [4]. Notwithstanding, it is thanks to Paracelsus’
and others alchemists that during the early Renaissance and the following
centuries the use of potable gold was diffused, since it was expected to
be the elixir capable of curing all diseases and was employed in a wide
range of illnesses [5]. A form of fever, known as auric fever, caused by
prolonged administration of large doses of gold was described. This fever
was accompanied by profuse sweats, a very abundant flow of urine,
gastrointestinal irritation, kidney damage and other toxic effects
including increased salivary secretion. Deceases from gold intoxication
have been also described [4]. Nevertheless, low doses of ‘drinkable gold’
were considered beneficial in many conditions because gold being itself
perfect could produce perfection in the human frame. Paracelsus wrote: “Of
all Elixirs, Gold is supreme and the most important for us... gold can
keep the body indestructible... Drinkable gold will cure all illnesses, it
renews and restores”[2]. Particularly Paracelsus first has the merit to
have introduced gold in the treatment of nervous diseases (mood disorders,
Sydenham’s chorea) [6] and epilepsy [7].

In the Elizabethan era the use of potable gold was sufficiently
diffuse to achieve notice in the Shakespeare’s literature [5]. In Henry
IV, Prince Henry blames the gold crown for his father’s illness: “I spake
unto this crown as having sense, And thus upbraided it: the care on thee
depending Hath fed upon the body of my father; Therefore, thou best of
gold art worst of gold: Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in medicine potable.”

Traditional believes of gold as elixir of long life can be traced
back to the Chinese in 2500 B.C., the first to prepare and use something
similar to the potable gold as the “drug of longevity.” In ancient Egypt
drinking “gold-water” was also thought to enhance youth. Red colloidal
gold is still used today in India by the elderly as an Ayurvedic medicine
for rejuvenation and revitalization under the name of Swarna Bhasma
(“Swarna” meaning gold, “Bhasma” meaning ash)[8,9]. Also used in India for
medicinal purposes is cinnabar-gold, known as “Makaradhwaja”, the emblem
for fertility[10].

Recently in nineteenth and twentieth century therapeutic uses for
gold compounds have been investigated periods of great enthusiasm and
complete rejection in psychiatric [11] and neurologic disorders, cancer
[12], infections [13,14] and autoimmune disease [15].

The pursuit of eternal beauty by elixirs of youth as well as the
research of the supreme panacea which equally transforms the body, spirit
and soul is a never-ending story. Gold solubilized in water, alias “Aurum
Potabile”, alias “Swarna Bhasma”, alias “Makaradhwaja”, alias “Drikable
Gold”, is only a chapter of this adventure.

REFERENCES

1. Thompson, CJS. Alchemy and Alchemists. (Reprint of the edition
published by Harrap GG and Co., London, 1932), Dover Publications, Inc.,
Mineola, New York, 2002: pp 61,18.

2. Paracelsus. Selected Writings. Ed. with an introduction by Jolande
Jacobi, trans. Norbert Guterman, New York : Pantheon, 1951.

3. Holmyard EJ. Alchemy. New York : Dover Publications, 1990: p. 170

4. Charlier P, Poupon J, Huynh-Charlier I, Saliège JF, Favier D,
Keyser C, Ludes B. A gold elixir of youth in the 16th century French
court. BMJ. 2009 16; 339: b5311.

5. Norton S. A brief history of potable gold. Mol Interv. 2008; 8 :
120-3.

6. Paracelsus. On the Diseases that Deprive Man of His Reason.
(Zilboorg, G. trans.) pp 167–186. In, “Paracelsus: Four Treatises,”
Sigerist, H.E. ed. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (1941).

7. Shaw III CF. Gold-based therapeutic agents. Chem Rev 1999; 99:
2589-600.

8. Mahdihassan S. Tan, cinnabar, as drug of longevity prior to
alchemy. Am J Chin Med 1984; 12: 50-4.

9. Mahdihassan S. Cinnabar-gold as the best alchemical drug of
longevity, called Makaradhwaja in India. Am J Chin Med 1985; 13: 93-108.

10. Fricker SP. Medicinal uses of gold compounds: past, present and
future. Gold Bull 1996; 29: 53-9.

11. Wood HC, Remington JP, and Sadtler SP. United States
Dispensatory, 19th edition, p 220. J.B.Lippincott Co., Philadelphia
(1907).

12. Fields AP, Frederick LA, and Regala RP. Targeting the oncogenic
protein kinase C iota signalling pathway for the treatment of cancer.
Biochem. Soc. Trans 2007; 35: 996–1000.

13. Koch R. Über bacteriologische Forschung: Tenth International
Medical Congress. Dtsch Med Wochenschr 1890; 16: 756-7.

14. Goodman LS, and Gilman A. The Pharmacological Basis of
Therapeutics, 3rd edition. The Macmillan Co. New York, 1965: pp 957, 155.

15. Forestier J. L’aurothérapie dans les rhumatismes chroniques.
Bull. Mém. Soc. méd. Hôp. Paris 1929; 53, 323-7.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

13 January 2010
Davide Lazzeri
Plastic surgeon
Stefano Lazzeri*, Michele Figus*, Marco Nardi*, and Marcello Pantaloni
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Unit and *Ophthalmology Unit, 56100, Hospital of Pisa, Italy.