“Diane de Poitiers, who likely died from the effects of drinking gold.”

Drinking Gold Was a Grisly Anti-Aging Trend of 16th-Century France
by Paula Mejia  /  September 17, 2018

“As long as humans have been alive, they’ve been concerned with the inevitabilities of aging. Today, there’s a universe of razor-specific creams and serums tailor-made for your skin. But back in 16th-century France, people, especially members of the nobility, tried to assuage wrinkles and age spots with a significantly deadlier substance: gold. One such member of the French court, Diane de Poitiers, drank a daily tonic of gold chloride mixed with diethyl ether. It likely killed her. While de Poitiers never wore the crown, she wielded substantial political and artistic influence within the court of King Henry II, who was her lover. Often described as a whip-smart Renaissance woman, de Poitiers was a patron of the arts and managed the education of the royal family’s children.

She also seemed ageless. Brantôme, the French historian, once wrote about meeting de Poitiers six months before she passed away at the age of 66. Though he admitted to not knowing much about the “potable gold and other drugs” she took daily, which contributed to her “fine appearance,” he quickly added: “I believe that if this lady had lived another hundred years she would not have aged … in her face, so well-composed it was.” The anti-aging trend was of its time, when apothecaries hawked wares ranging from scorpion oil to spiderweb elixirs. The gold-drinking practice goes back even further, though. Pliny the Elder suggested it as a salve for warts and ulcers. Wei Boyang, a Chinese alchemist from the second and third century CE, wrote of gold as being “immortal,” and how those who drank it “enjoy longevity.” The ancient Egyptians swore by “gold-water” as an anti-aging remedy, too. The idea stemmed from the fact that gold did not corrode, which suggested longevity.

According to Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen’s book Quackery, gold-drinking evolved from curiosity to downright fervor during the medieval era, when an alchemist figured out how to dissolve solid gold into a liquid. Aurum potabile (sometimes known as aurum potable), as drinkable gold was known around the 16th century, was advertised as a cure-all for everything from epilepsy to mania. Gold-imbued recipes made their way into chemistry manuals by the likes of French medical professionals Jean Beguin and Christophe Glaser, and even the short-lived Portuguese Pope John XXI. In 1578, he wrote a laborious recipe for a gold-laced, youth-preserving water. It involved taking gold, silver, iron, copper, iron, steel, and lead filings, then placing that mixture “in the urine of a virgin child on the first day,” then white wine, fennel juice, egg whites, in a nursing woman’s milk, in red wine, then again in egg whites, in that order, for the following six days.

Drinking gold (of the molten variety) had been used to deliberately kill people during the Spanish Inquisition. But it wasn’t until many centuries later that people realized that their golden anti-aging routine could be fatal, as seems to have been the case for de Poitiers. She died in Anet, France, in 1566, but her remains turned up during an excavation of a mass grave in the area. It’s thought that her body was exhumed, and her grave destroyed, during the French Revolution. In analyzing de Poitiers’ hair, researchers writing in the The BMJ concluded that she likely died of chronic intoxication due to her long habit of drinking gold. That’s not to say drinking gold has died out entirely: One liqueur on the market, Goldschläger, comes complete with thin gold flakes inside of it. Luckily, we can all agree that drinking this gold won’t give you eternal youth.”

French king’s mistress poisoned by gold elixir
by Henry Samuel   / 22 Dec 2009

“Diane de Poitiers was renowned for her youthful looks and porcelain skin and thought the concoction preserved her youth. Experts say she was up to 20 years older than the king but her appearance made them look the same age. One courtier said she was “as fresh and lovable” in her final years as when aged 30 and had skin “of great whiteness”. She was unusually athletic for the time, keeping in shape by horse riding, hunting and going on daily swims in the river next to the chateau d’Anet, in northern France where she lived. But her secret was the elixir she drunk every day made up of gold chloride and diethyl ether. It was one of a host of anti-ageing treatments peddled by apothecaries, along with recipes including spider webs, earthworms, frogspawn and scorpion’s oil.

However, French experts writing in the British Medical Journal say the yellow liquid said to harness the powers of the sun and keep her immutable actually slowly killed her at the age of 66. Three scientists unearthed her bones last year and found the jaw perfectly matched her portrait while her leg bone had a clean break from a documented riding accident. The breakthrough came when they studied locks of her hair kept at the chateau d’Anet: these were found to contain gold 500 times above normal levels, as well as mercury – used as a “purifier” in the elixir. Since she was not a queen and did not wear a crown, scientists ruled out the possibility that jewellery had contaminated her hair and body.

Scientists Joel Poupon and Philippe Charlier, who usually works in hospital morgues in Paris, worked together to identify de Poitiers in the recently opened Normandy grave. “Her hair was much finer than normal, which is a secondary effect of chronic gold poisoning,” said Mr Charlier. “It gives you white skin (from anaemia) and very fragile hair, bones and teeth. She was in this fragile state when she died.” After the king’s death, de Poitiers was banished from court by his widow Catherine de’Medici to the chateau in Anet given to her by the king. She died there in 1566 and was buried in a tomb in a specially built funeral chapel. Her grave was desecrated during the French Revolution and her body flung into a common grave outside the chateau’s walls. Her bones will now be laid to rest back in the chateau next year.”

A gold elixir of youth in the 16th century French court
BMJ 2009 339 doi: / 16 December 2009

“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 months3.

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 century4. 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 illnesses5. 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 described4. 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 epilepsy7.

In the Elizabethan era the use of potable gold was sufficiently diffuse to achieve notice in the Shakespeare’s literature5. 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 fertility10.

Recently in nineteenth and twentieth century therapeutic uses for gold compounds have been investigated periods of great enthusiasm and complete rejection in psychiatric11 and neurologic disorders, cancer 12, infections13 and autoimmune disease15. 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.”

Gold nanoparticles stick to cancer cells and make them shine”

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.

Did gold kill 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. Chronic 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 loss7 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. 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).13,14

Diane is known to have undergone a long course of gold treatment h oping 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 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 colleagues17 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 34278 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.22After 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.”

1 Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia, XXXIII, 25.

2 Glauber JR. La teinture de l’or ou le véritable or potable (trad Du Teil). Thomas Jolly, 1659.

3 Buffon. Œuvres complètes. Tome III. Lejeune, 1829, p 262.

4 De la Tourette A. Bref discours des admirables vertus de l’or potable. P Roussin, 1575.

5 Béguin J. Les éléments de chymie. C Chancey, 1645, p 273-82.

6 Glaser C. Traité de la chymie. 2nd ed. Jean d’Houry, 1668, p 87-94.

7 Dreux du Radier. Mémoires historiques et anecdotes sur les reines et régentes de France. Tome 4, 1776, p 468-71.

8 Roussel PD. Histoire et description du château d’Anet depuis le dixième siècle jusqu’à nos jours, précédée d’une notice sur la ville d’Anet, terminée par un sommaire chronologique sur tous les seigneurs qui ont habité le château et sur ses propriétaires et contenant une étude sur Diane de Poitiers. 1875.

9 Benazzi S, Stansfield E, Milani C, Gruppioni G. Geometric morphometric methods for three-dimensional virtual reconstruction of a fragmented cranium: the case of Angelo Poliziano. Int J Legal Med 2009;123:333-44.

10 Charlier P, Georges P, Bouchet F, Huynh-Charlier I, Carlier R, Mazel V, Richardin P, Brun L, Blondiaux J, Lorin de la Grandmaison G. The microscopic (optical and SEM) examination of putrefaction fluid deposits (PFD). Potential interest in forensic anthropology. Virchows Arch 2008;453:377-86.

11 Beta-analytics (London and Miami) performed the carbon dating.

12 Ferguson JE. The noble metals in hair. In: Brooks R R (ed) Noble metals and biological systems: their role in medicine, mineral exploration, and the environment. CRC Press, 1992, p 91-128.

13 Charlier P (ed). Ostéo-archéologie et techniques médicolégales : tendances et perspectives. Pour un Manuel pratique de paléopathologie. Paris: De Boccard, 2008, p 215.

14 Tett SE. Clinical pharmacokinetics of slow-acting antirheumatic drugs. Clin Pharmacokinet 1993;25:392-407.

15 Brantôme. Vies des Dames illustres, françaises et étrangères (ed Moland L). Garnier Frères, 1868.

16 Messori L, Marcon G. Gold complexes in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In: Sigel A, Sigel H, eds. Metal ions and their complexes in medication. CRC Press, 2004, p 280-301.

17 Gottlieb NL, Smith PM, Smith EM. Tissue gold concentration in a rheumatoid arthritic receiving chrysotherapy. Arthritis Rheum 1972;15:16-22.

18 Gottlieb NL, Smith PM, Penneys NS, Smith EM. Gold concentrations in hair, nail, and skin during chrysotherapy. Arthritis Rheum 1974;17:56-62.

19 Basset C, Vadrot J, Denis J, Poupon J, Zafrani ES. Prolonged cholestasis and ductopenia following gold salt therapy. Liver Int 2003,23:89-93.

20 Chevard V. Histoire de Chartres et de l’ancien pays Chartrain avec une description statistique du département d’Eure et Loir. Chartres: Durand-le-Tellier, 1801, p 389.

21 Charlier P. Evolution of embalming methodology in medieval and modern France (Agnès Sorel, the Duc de Berry, Louis the XIth, Charlotte de Savoie). Med Secoli 2006;18:777-97.

22 Charlier P. Who was the “Dame de Beauté?” Scientific study of the remains of Agnès Sorel. Hist Sci Med 2006;40:255-63. Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5311