A paper I found in the British Medical Journal suggests that Diane of Potiers, a 16th century French courtesan and mistress of Henri II, died from drinking gold preparations.
Her grave was desecrated during the French Revolution, and a sample of hair taken and preserved. A few years ago ICP-MS was used to find that it contained large amounts of gold. Well, large for someone’s hair anyway, and the hair was much thinner than normal, which is a known symptom of gold poisoning. Even better, it is recorded that she drank potable gold, thinking it was an elixir of youth, as indeed it was thought of since at least the 14th century. Gold is obviously a pure, perfect metal, uncorroded as time passes by, what could be more obvious than it helping prevent decay in your body?
The question that naturally springs to mind is, which recipe was used? The researchers did find more mercury than normal in her hair, which suggest some possibilities. I don’t have any actual recipes for potable gold handy; that is more a medicinal-alchemical thing, although John of Rupescissa’s mid-14th century work De Consideratione quintae essentiae has various recipes for making the quintessence of gold and mentions dipping hot gold into alcohol in order to produce a gold related medicine. I have the impression at the moment that potable gold recipes are more common in the 16th century, e.g. in Conrad Gesner’s “New Jewell of Health” from 1576. Paracelsus claimed to have made it, and Principe, in his “The secrets of alchemy”, notes that it was well known that gold preparations would decompose back into gold, but the true potable gold preparations did not.
So the presence of mercury in Diane’s remains suggests that the route to making the potable gold included mercury. In alchemy, calcination of metals is very important as the first part of the work. Most metals can be calcined by vinegar or by heating in a furnace to a great heat, but gold, being unreactive, requires other methods. By the late medieval period that included amalgamating it with mercury and doing things with that amalgamate. Naturally the end product would contain mercury as a contaminant.
So in this case we have a likely example of alchemy informing medicine, and this is a case of overexposure to alchemical stuff causing a reduced life expectancy.
The paper is:
Author(s): Philippe Charlier, Joël Poupon, Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, Jean-François Saliège,Dominique Favier, Christine Keyser and Bertrand LudesSource: BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 339, No. 7735 (19-26 December 2009), pp. 1402-1403