Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

Tara Alberts, University of York 

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

The dose makes the poison: dangerous plants

By Marieke Hendriksen

'The gift of chemistry', by P.H. Looff, 1773
‘The gift of chemistry’, by P.H. Looff, 1773

My current research focuses on how certain materials, particularly metals, gemstones and glass, mostly disappeared from the medicine of Boerhaave and his followers. This primarily had to do with how these substances were chemically understood. When I tell this to people, they mostly nod in agreement, assuming that Leiden professor of medicine, chemistry and botany Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) discovered how poisonous metals are for the human body through chemical analysis, and subsequently banished them from his medicine. The truth is a little more nuanced. Boerhaave’s ideas about these substances and his idea of poisonousness were deeply influenced by those of illustrious medical men like Paracelsus (1493-1541) and the common alchemical understandings of matter at the time.

The reason that Boerhaave thought most metals were poisonous for humans for example was not because he had systematically tested the effects of ingestion, but because he argued from an alchemical understanding that the corrosive nature of most metals, except for gold and iron, meant that they were generally damaging for the human body. Only in very severe cases of otherwise incurable diseases, such as syphilis, could an appropriately cultivated preparation of a heavy metal like mercury be used as a last resource. Neither did Boerhaave’s discouragement of the use of substances such as metals in medicine mean that he thought all vegetable substances were safe to use, and he discusses vegetable poisons in his lectures.

Poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) Courtesy of  Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.
Poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) Courtesy of Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.

However, Boerhaave, although critical of Paracelsus, was also aware of the truth of his adage ‘the dose makes the poison,’ and a fervent advocate of critical thinking and practical research, who told his readers to think for themselves and undertake their own experiments. The impact of his work and attitude becomes clear from an array of eighteenth-century works on medicine, ranging from academic chemistry and medical handbooks to private recipe collections and small practical medical treatises in the vernacular. A nice example is a pamphlet by Philip Looff (1745-1778), a medical doctor from Groningen, published in 1773 under the title Donum Chemicum, literally ‘the gift of chemistry.’[1]

Rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulentum). Couresy of Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.
Rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulentum). Courtesy of Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.

Although Looff obviously never met Boerhaave, he dedicated his book to Boerhaave’s successor and former student H.D. Gaub (1705-1780), who endorsed it, and Looff repeatedly speaks of Boerhaave’s work admiringly in the book. Completely in Boerhaave’s line of thought too is his discussion of the medicinal use of rough chervil (‘dulle kervel’ or Chaerophyllum temulum), a slightly poisonous plant. It was often confused with hemlock  (Conium maculatum), which is said to have been the active ingredient in Socrates’ poisoned chalice. Like Boerhaave, Looff begins with a warning that any use of poisonous substances by the uniformed is extremely dangerous, and continuous to describe an observation of the usefulness of rough chervil in the cure of leprosy. According to Looff, he and his father in law, also a medical doctor, had successfully cured a woman suffering from leprosy be treating her with a very week solution of rough chervil and sarsaparilla – a handful of rough chervil and an ounce and a half of sarsaparilla boiled in 28 or 30 ounces of water for three hours. Although the patient went temporarily blind each time she took a two-ounce dose of the brew, after seven weeks of two daily doses, she was cured of her leprosy.

In hindsight it seems rather risky that Looff published his findings in the vernacular, as it is very easy to confuse rough chervil and hemlock – ingestion of only 6 to 8 leaves of fresh hemlock can be fatal. Yet however dangerous, these kinds of case studies were also essential for the study of the effects of potentially poisonous plants on the human body, and thus indirectly for the early nineteenth-century invention of isolating plant alkaloids  – the active chemical principles of plants that had been used medicinally for centuries and that we still know and use today.[2]

 

Plant prints: permission from Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de

 


[2] Swann, John P. “The Pharmaceutical Industries.” edited by Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone, The Cambridge History of Science. Volume 6: Modern Life and Earth Sciences: 126–40. (The Cambridge History of Science, 2009), p. 127-8.

Boerhaave’s contemporary fame: a letter from China to recipe books

By Marieke Hendriksen

Herman Boerhaave, J. Chapman, 1798. Source credit: http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/B29694 via Wikimedia Commons.
Herman Boerhaave, J. Chapman, 1798. Source credit: http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/B29694 via Wikimedia Commons.

My current research project focuses on how Herman Boerhaave’s (1668-1738) medical and chemical ideas, particularly those on metals, influenced the theories and practices of his students and other followers. The longer I work on this topic, the more I notice Boerhaave’s general influence on his contemporaries and the next generations. Already during his lifetime, Boerhaave was famous far beyond the borders of the Netherlands, even though he hardly left Leiden and the furthest journey he made during his life was to Harderwijk, a Dutch town about 100km from Leiden, where he gained his doctorate. A popular (alhough never documented) story told that a letter sent from China, addressed simply to ‘the illustrious prof. Boerhaave, physician in Europe,’ reached him without delay.

Then there was Boerhaave’s stove, a small wooden box-like incubator Boerhaave described in one of his text books and which students, apothecaries and amateurs constructed at least till the early nineteenth century to conduct chemical experiments, prepare ingredients for drugs, and even hatch eggs. Another trace of Boerhaave’s influence on Dutch eighteenth-century culture was the continuing description of dark candy sugar as ‘Boerhaave’s sugar,’ because he prescribed it as an ingredient in cough syrups. Yet most clearly of all can his influence be seen in both professional and private eighteenth-century manuscript recipe books.

Brown candy sugar, also known as 'Boerhaave's sugar' in the eighteenth century
Brown candy sugar, also known as ‘Boerhaave’s sugar’ in the eighteenth century. Image credit: © Alice Wiegand / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although it may seem obvious that Boerhaave’s medicine influenced that of other medical men, it is interesting to see how diverse his influence was. Lately I compared a number of eighteenth-century Dutch manuscript recipe books and was pleasantly surprised by the different ways in which Boerhaave’s medicine influenced both medical men and others. In an anonymous recipe book that was probably compiled by a medical man of some sort, four recipes are attributed to Boerhaave, and three to his direct successor at Leiden University, Jerome Gaub (1705-1780). That this book was most likely used by a medical professional can be told from the fact that most of the recipes were written down in Latin, and measurements were given in apothecary shorthand, i.e. weights were indicated in drams.[1] Moreover, recipes for analgesics and purges to be used in persistent illnesses such as venereal disease and epilepsy, often accompanied by a note that they are only to be used if all else fails, are dominant, and ingredients like mercury, antimony, and sulphur are frequently listed.

This forms a stark contrast with household recipe books from the same period, like the anonymous ‘Medicamentboek’ that contains recipes attributed to ‘Bourhavi’ [sic] against fever and coughing. The most remarkable difference with the first recipe book is that almost all recipes are in Dutch, and contain primarily readily available ingredients, such as beer, bread, wine, honey, candy sugar, herbs, spices, rhubarb, tongue of veal, red cabbage, liquorice, and vinegar. Moreover, instead of cures for persistent and grave illnesses such as advanced venereal disease, this recipe book lists cures for more common ailments such as dandruff, irritated gums, coughing and winter hands.  Although some recipes in this book have been written in apothecary shorthand, in Latin, or contain more exotic ingredients such as red coral and boiled puppies, these entries are all in a different hand than the bulk of the recipes, suggesting the recipe collector occasionally asked a medical professional to add a recipe to his or her household medical recipes book.[2]

Rather than reading all these attributions to Boerhaave as direct evidence of medical networks, which is problematic, as they do not prove that the compiler had any affiliation with the names source, they can be read as proof of the diverse yet widely dispersed influence of Boerhaave’s medicine in eighteenth-century Dutch society.[3] For medical men, he was a professional example whose recipes, especially the more complicated ones that contained potentially dangerous ingredients such as metals, were collected as a resource for extreme cases. For laymen, Boerhaave’s name and simpler recipes, based on more readily available ingredients and aimed at more common ailments, carried equal authority.


[1] Anonymous. “Receptenboekje”, ca. 1750. Museum Boerhaave Library, Leiden: BOERH a 313.

[2] “Medicament boek : met een recept van Boerhaave tegen koorts”, 17XX. Museum Boerhaave Library, Leiden: BOERH a 308.

[3] For more on interpreting early modern recipe books, see Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell, eds. Reading and Writing Recipe Books 1550-1800. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Metallic cures: antimonial wine and mineral kermes

By Marieke Hendriksen

In my previous post, I wrote about the ubiquity of mercurial drugs in the long eighteenth century. Mercury is a metal we are all quite familiar with, yet a variety of cures was based on metals and metallic compounds well into the nineteenth century – some of which we hardly hear of anymore today. Drugs based on antimony, a lustrous grey metalloid often found in ores together with either sulfur or mercury, and mineral kermes, a compound of antimony trioxide and trisulfide, were very popular. In universal encyclopedias from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for example, we find complicated recipes to create mineral kermes, which involve repeated distilling of a mixture of sulfur of antimony, fixed niter or potassium carbonate, and river- or rainwater.[i]

Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.
Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

Although it unlikely anyone tried these recipes at home, the use of antimony and its derivatives had a long tradition. Antimony cups were used since antiquity to make antimonial wine by soaking regular wine in it for one or more days.[ii] The fact that antimony frequently occurred together with mercury or sulphur appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical men and women, as sulphur and mercury were considered the basic alchemical elements. Moreover, as antimony could cleanse the most precious metal, gold, from impurities, alchemists reasoned it could also cleanse and cure God’s most precious creature, created after his own image: man. Hence Paracelsus (1493-1541) and many of his followers advocated the use of small amounts of antimony in iatrochemical drugs, although they were well aware of the fact that it is highly poisonous.

Antimonial wine thus was a tried emetic, yet antimony cups were forbidden in England and France for much of the seventeenth century, as the use of a wine too acidic would result in a lethal concoction. This prohibition was sometimes circumnavigated by creating antimony cups from tin with a small amount of antimony.[iii] In France antimony cups became legal once more in 1658, after Louis XIV was cured from typhoid fever with antimonial wine.[iv] After this royal endorsement of antimony, men of science started to investigate it more closely than ever before. Between 1700 and 1707 the French chemist Lemery wrote an extensive series of articles on antimony and its medicinal uses for the Académie des Sciences, culminating in a book describing all the changes it underwent by chemical procedures, and how the resulting substances could be used in medicine.[v] The Leiden professor of chemistry Gaub too devoted a substantial part of his lectures on metals on antimony and mineral kermes, extensively discussing the chemical procedures that should be applied to create effective medical materials.[vi]

French Apothecary Bottle: Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.
French Apothecary Bottle with traces of Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.

The recipes in the encyclopedias show that mineral kermes was one of the most important medical materials that could be created through chemically treating antimony. As can still be seen in a late nineteenth-centruy French apothecary bottle, it is a reddish brown powder. The powder does not dissolve in water and, like mercury, had a reputation for cleansing the lymphatic vessels, and was also used as an emetic and diaphoretic. The name was probably derived from the Arabic name for a similarly coloured crimson dye made from insects, al-qirmiz. The use of mineral kermes as a drug was apparently first mentioned by Glauber (1604-1670), but how to successfully create it remained a subject of debate into the nineteenth century, even after an official recipe was published by the king of France in 1720.[vii]


[i] De Felice, Fortunato Bartolomeo, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire universel raisonné des connoissances, (Paris, 1773), Vol. 25, p. 345. Wilkes, John, Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or, Universal Dictionary of Arts (London: J. Adlard, 1810), Vol. iv, p. 277.

[ii] Also see one of my previous blogs on The Medicine Chest.

[iii] StClair Thomson, “Antimonyall Cupps: Pocula Emetica or Calices Vomitorii”, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med., Vol. XIX, no. 9, 1925, 123-8.

[iv] C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012, 49.

[v] Lemery, Nicolás, Traité de L’antimoine (Paris: Jean Boudot, 1707).

[vi] Gaub, H.D., ‘Chemiae Praxis. Notes of Lectures by an Unnamed Student. Produced in Leyden.’, Closed stores WMS 4  MS.2479, Wellcome Library Manuscripts, p. 593-685.

[vii] Willich, A.F.M., A Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, 3 vols. (London: B. McMillan, 1802), p. 46.