Alchemy’s Shower of Gold

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.

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. 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.

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

(That’s an excerpt from the article “Chemistry’s colorful past,” by Neil Gussman, published in AIR 14:4.)