Saturday, November 16, 2013

Alchemy ~ Isaac Newton and the Death of Charles II

by Grace Elliot

Who wouldn’t want to turn base metal into gold?

Alchemy, or the pursuit of ‘making’ gold, fired the imagination of many men including such notables as Sir Isaac Newton and King Charles II.

The principle of alchemy was established by the great Arab alchemist, known as Geber. He theorised that all matter was made from four elements: fire, earth, water and air.  These elements combined to form mercury and sulphur, and depending on the proportions in which these two were mixed all other metals could be made.  Geber’s experiments produced a red compound, cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) and he confidently predicted the perfect proportion of mercury and sulphur would produce gold. From this, we begin to understand the alchemist’s motivation -- for he had only to hit on the correct mix and he was rich!

Several men appeared to discover the secret. One such, Nicholas Flamel (1330 – 1418), supposedly converted mercury to silver and three months later, mercury to gold. The rumour gathered credence because the reclusive Flamel became a wealthy man. However, it seems likely he used the alchemy as a cover for a money-lending and debt-collecting business!

Another fraudster was the English alchemist, George Ripley (born in the 1400’s). His credentials were impeccable – he studied for 20 years in Italy and became chaplain to Pope Innocent III. Ripley then returned to England and published a book ‘The Compound of Alchemy – or – the Twelve Gates Leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone’-- which he dedicated to King Edward IV. Again, he became a rich man which added credence to his claim. But on his death bed Ripley confessed he was a charlatan and the best use for his book was to burn it.

Fraudsters were not above taking advantage of gullible people with tricks such as dissolving gold in mercury (leaving the gold behind when the mercury was distilled) or double bottomed crucibles with gold hidden in the lower vessel. So widespread was such fraud that in 1404 King Henry IV passed a law forbidding the making of gold by alchemical means. This law stayed in place until the 17th century when the scientist Robert Boyle argued that it interfered with genuine research that might make the nation wealthy.

In the 1600’s, a more respectable branch of science, chemistry, arose from alchemy and the latter became less respectable. None the less, some eminent scientists such as Isaac Newton dabbled with trying to make gold.
Sir Isaac Newton

Newton sincerely believed that if he could discover the forgotten secret of transmutation, he could make gold. He experimented with dissolving mercury in nitric acid and then adding other chemicals. In 1675 he wrote up his (unsuccessful) findings, but undeterred, he persisted for many more years. 

Indeed, it seems likely that Newton’s experiments slowly poisoned him. Newton’s symptoms are documented in his letters written to friends – and include severe insomnia, lack of appetite, paranoia, memory loss and delusions – classic symptoms of mercury poisoning. Indeed, hair samples analysed recently showed mercury content over 17 times the safe level.

King Charles II
King Charles II also had an interest in alchemy– perhaps he hoped to change base metal into gold and cut Parliament’s hold on the purse strings. He appointed a physician in 1669 to ‘compound and invent medicines’, became intrigued by the latter’s work and then created his own private laboratory in which to experiment.

‘The King’s little laboratory under his closet, a pretty place, and there saw a great many Chymicall gasses and things, but understood none of them.’

Charles became obsessed with ‘fixing mercury’ and often spent whole mornings in his laboratory. Unfortunately, heating mercury in an open crucible releases toxic mercury vapour which can pass across the blood-brain barrier that protects the central nervous system and it is entirely possible that Charles’ alchemy experiments may have contributed to his death.
Charles final illness included slurred speech, convulsions and then fits. At the time his symptoms were put down to a stroke but this is a condition not usually associated with seizures whereas mercury poisoning is. An autopsy of Charles’ brain revealed that the ventricles contained more water than normal – another finding consistent with mercury poisoning. 

The cause of Charles' death was much debated at the time, and some, including one of his own doctor's suspected poisoning of some sort. Modern science cannot prove what happened one way or the other, but suggests that uraemia (a build up of toxins because of kidney failure) may have been the cause. 

And finally, in the early 1700’s several companies did indeed make gold – but not by alchemy. They sold shares on the stock market on the promise of revealing the alchemist’s secret. People invested, but of course the claims were false and investors lost their money. It was the unscrupulous activities of such companies that in part led to the South Sea Bubble bursting and stock market collapse of 1720. 



  1. Lovely post. I've always found alchemy to be interesting -- especially as the precursor to chemistry. :) It feels like alchemy is seen as this fantasy topic, where the search for gold is only found in the realm of fiction. But of course, it was a real study of discipline, that people really did try their hand at. Again, great post!

    1. Thank you, Danielle. Isn't it great the Nicholas Flamel even fired J K Rowling's imagination. She mentioned Flamel in The Philosopher's Stone (I think) and he actually existed.
      Grace x