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Feature Christmas: Diagnosis

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

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (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}

    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 …

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