Alchemy’s Shower of Gold

The following article is from the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

Chemistry’s colorful past
by Neil Gussman
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Paintings of alchemists show them holding up flasks. The contents of those flasks are almost always golden in color. That’s because alchemists were obsessed with urine.

Trouble comes to the Alchemist, 17-18th century,17th century Netherlandish. (FA 2000.001.269. Oil on canvas Fisher Collection Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.) Photo by Will Brown.

And no wonder. The limits of science all through history are set by the limits of instruments. So despite having just five senses for test instruments, the alchemist could use urine to diagnose patients and make scientific discoveries. (He was often the local healer, dentist and bleeder.) At the time when alchemy was the leading edge of chemistry, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the alchemist could observe, sniff, touch and taste this vital fluid to look for clues to the ills his patient suffered.

The Alchemist, 17th century, by Mattheus van Helmont. (Oil on canvas. Fisher Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections. FA 2000.001.277. Another alchemist working in a messy back room. This one holds the specimen at arm’s length, maybe because he is farsighted, or maybe because he decided against the sniff test. Photo by Will Brown.

The Medical Chemist, 18th century, by Franz Christoph Janneck. (Oil on copper. Fisher Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections. FA 2000.001.275.) A shabby and dirty alchemist looking for cues of the maladies of the patient through urinoscopy. Photo by Will Brown.

The Iatrochemist, 17-18th century, by Balthasar van den Bossche. (FA 2000.001.279.Oil on canvas. Fisher Collection, CHF Collections.) Many alchemy paintings hung in the homes of prosperous merchants as a warning to their children: Don’t Be an Alchemist! This painting shows the alchemist as a poor man, working in the back room of a Publick House, using his five senses to analyze an anxious lady’s urine while a dentist works in the background. This scene was almost 200 years before ether, so the alchemist worked in loud and foul conditions. Photo by Will Brown.

Arguably the greatest discovery made by an alchemist was from urine. Sometime around 1669, German alchemist Hennig Brandt distilled buckets of urine and then heated the paste that remained. In addition to creating a horrible smell, he isolated phosphorus. When the secret got out—Brandt’s neighbors certainly knew a lot about his research—alchemists across Europe began collecting urine from public loos in hopes of replicating his results. Alchemy hung on till the 19th century partly because Brandt found the route from piss to phosphorus.

Science, 17-18th century, after Gerard Thomas. (Oil on canvas. Fisher Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections. FA 2000.001.265.) This atypical alchemist works in clean clothes in neat surroundings with servants and a dog at his side, but he is still staring at a beaker of urine. Photo by Will Brown.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Amanda Antonucci, assistant image archivist at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, for help in preparing the historical images displayed here.

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This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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