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The history of science

Documents worth their weight in gold

Brazilian researchers find philosopher's stone recipe at the Royal Society


Researchers Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb and Márcia Ferraz from the Simão Mathias Center for Studies on the History of Science (Cesima), at the Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), took the motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in verba, (do not believe anybody’s word) literally. This motto conveys the idea that science essentially needs to be practiced. Thanks to their literal interpretation, the two researchers made an astonishing discovery in 2008. While going through piles of documents in the archives of the British institution, they came across a formula for alkahest, the alleged “universal solvent” of alchemists, that supposedly dissolves any substance, reducing it to its primary components (see Pesquisa FAPESP no. 154). However, there were some gaps to be filled before the “case could be closed.” Specifically, it was necessary to identify the author of the copy of the formula found by the researchers. The researchers went back to the archives, solved one mystery, and came upon an even more enticing one: the discovery of a formula for the notorious philosopher’s stone that, according to popular belief, transformed ordinary metals into gold.

“It was an astonishing surprise and, in a way, an uncomfortable one because, as historians of science, it has become increasingly difficult to verify to what extent alchemy was important for the consolidation of the new science in the eighteenth century. It is important to point out that this continuous search for transmutation was viewed within the context of chemistry – especially as an instrument for medical progress – rather than within an esoteric context. This becomes very apparent in the concerns of such men as Boyle or Newton, among other heavyweights, who believed in the existence of the philosopher’s stone,” explains Ana Maria. The professors believe that the work on the philosopher’s stone was conducted within the scientific context of those times, though there are other views. “Baconism was introduced into the Royal Society distorted by the views of a group linked to Samuel Hartlib, one of the institution’s founders. This group took Bacon’s precepts of studying ‘that which is new, rare, and strange’ in nature to the limit, mixing it with the persistent interest in discovering ‘useful’ inventions, without disregarding hermetic ideas, and going back to the works of Paracelsus and Helmont. Suffice it to see how Boyle maintained an embarrassing – to say the least – interest in issues related to natural philosophy and was willing to accept any kind of phenomenon, as long as it could be explained along mechanical lines. This included the philosopher’s stone. Newton, in his letter to Henry Oldenburg, the Royal Society secretary, complained that his colleague should ‘keep silent’ and refrain from disclosing ‘the secrets of a true hermetic philosopher’,” points out historian Theodore Hoppen, a professor at the University of Hull and author of the paper The nature of the early Royal Society. 

Oldenburg, in fact, is at the center of the new mystery revealed by the Brazilian researchers. After several attempts to identify the handwriting of the alkahest formula, they came across a document in Latin with comments in French in the margins. “The handwriting looked familiar to us and we realized that it was Oldenburg’s handwriting; he wrote his personal comments in French. So that mystery was solved: it was he who had transcribed the alkahest formula. However, when we read the text in Latin, written in another kind of handwriting, we realized that it was a formula for the philosopher’s stone,” the professors say. The title of the text – which they were able to date as being from 1659 – was: Processus de bois. Right from the start, the two researchers believed that this referred to experiments related to burning wood (bois is French for wood), but when they verified the existence of elements of the philosopher’s stone, they realized that the same person was involved. In France, they checked if someone called Du Bois had anything to do with the famous transmutation; after a detective-like search, they discovered the story of Noel Picard, also known as Du Bois, who was hanged in the Bastille in 1637 at the order of Cardinal Richelieu. The reason? He had tried to fool the powerful minister of Louis XIII by claiming that he was able to produce gold from lead. After an adventurous life of travels and conversion from Capuchin priest to Lutheran, Du Bois, back in Paris, was taken under the wing of Father Joseph, Richelieu’s confessor. “The cardinal saw this as a chance to increase France’s wealth and solve the kingdom’s financial problems. So he asked Du Bois to use his ‘projection powder’ produce gold in the presence of the king, the queen, and other noteworthy guests, including Richelieu,” says Márcia. Carrying a cupel and a crucible, Du Bois went to the Louvre and got to work, asking the guards to bring him some musket gunpowder. He heated the gunpowder, sprinkled a powder on it and then covered it with ashes. The king, who was very enthusiastic, insisted on blowing the mixture himself; as a result, the king, the queen, and all the guests were covered in ashes. However, the commotion made up for all of this, because the people glimpsed gold in the bottom of the pan. Louis XIII hugged the unfortunate Du Bois, immediately granting him a noble title and the privilege of hunting on royal lands. Richelieu, who was very pleased, took Father Joseph to a corner of the room and said he would nominate Father Joseph for a position as cardinal. The fact that the goldsmiths at Court verified that this was 22-karat gold did not affect the overall excitement. Du Bois told the goldsmiths that it was merely an example of the possibilities.


Richelieu told Du Bois that the king needed “only” 800 thousand francs worth of gold every week and granted him 20 days to begin production. He added that this would allow the king to stop collecting taxes and make him the most powerful ruler in Europe. However, Du Bois spent the 20 days hunting with his friends. The cardinal became suspicious and ordered that Du Bois be watched. Finally, irritated with the delay, Richelieu built a laboratory for the alleged alchemist to execute his “great work” – this time as a prisoner – in the castle of Vincennes. Du Bois failed, and the “nobleman” was taken to the Bastille, where he was tortured and hanged because he had failed to provide the formula for the philosopher’s stone. It is noteworthy, however, that, in spite of everything, his executioners believed that he really was capable of producing gold, but did not want to disclose the secret. Twenty years later, in 1659, Oldenburg was in France, where he came across Du Bois’ formula and sent it to England, where it seems to have been enthusiastically received. “In the seventeenth century, at the Royal Society, those brilliant men actually believed that Du Bois had really been able to ‘unlock the gold,’ in other words, that he had been able to dissolve it in order to prepare other materials, which was the function attributed to the philosopher’s stone,” says Ana.

“The core of the matter was the concern in dealing with health problems, especially the dissolving of stones in the body, one of the leading causes of death at those times. The belief was that the perfect solution was to dissolve them with mineral acids, without killing the patient. It was necessary to find something with the power of acid without the problems. This is where alkahest and the philosopher’s stone together would be the perfect medication,” Ana explains. Alkahest would reduce the negative effects of the acid, while the stone was the perfect complement, as it was powerful enough to dissolve a noble and resistant metal such as gold, which at the same time was not powerful enough to damage the body. “Of course this didn’t keep people from believing that the Stone was able to produce gold for financial purposes, even though the monetary reasons were neither the only nor the most important ones,” says Márcia. Everything was interconnected. If the stone had the power to “perfect” the metals, converting them into gold, which was the consequence of the alchemists’ belief in the unit of the matter, this metal “medicine” could be extended to human medicine, which could also be “improved.” This is why so many people referred to the stone as a great panacea for all illnesses and able to prolong life. As gold did not corrode, it began to be viewed as a symbol of immortality, which led to the belief among the ancient physicians and Chinese alchemists – who were searching for the elixir of a long life – that it could be used for medical purposes.

‘The work of Paracelsus and Van Helmont, among others, was developed at a time when Galenic medicine was being questioned. In addition, there were other new diseases that required more effective solutions. The search for such solutions by resorting to such remedies as alkahest, for example, reveals this medical concern,” points out chemistry historian Paulo Alves Porto, a professor at the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo. “The meaning of chemistry, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, must be viewed in the context of its relationship with medicine, even though transmutation remained a constant issue until the Age of the Enlightenment, even when the separation between chemistry and medicine had already begun, wrote American historian Allen Debus in his article Alchemy and iatrochemistry.” According to his article, at first the relationship was based on the rivalry with the Galenic exponents, the main interest being to advance in terms of chemical explanations of physiological processes, the basis of the work of Van Helmont, which led to the separation between chemistry and medicine for purposes other than pharmaceutical ones. “The work of Lavoisier did not need to resort to chemistry based on medicine because of this long process. The importance of medicine in the rise of modern science was not discussed much,” Debus adds. Transmutation lost some of its power in the late seventeenth century. “A movement was started at the Academie Royale de Sciences in Paris to sideline practice in order to domesticate chemistry, turning it into a respectable subject which would be included in academia. It was necessary to break away from the alchemistic past and start everything from scratch to provide chemistry with a new identity and status. Even so, this movement was not entirely successful,” analyzes historian Lawrence Principe, from Johns Hopkins University, author of Alchemy tried in the fire. “The network of documents and people intimately linked to transmutation, that our research work has exposed, gains more data and ramifications every day. This could be the tip of an enormous documental iceberg,” Ana Goldfarb believes.