What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next three weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.
During the Middle Ages, every alchemist worth his saltpeter tried to find the philosopher’s stone, the water stone of the wise, the miraculous stone that is no stone. It was the means to transmute base metals into gold and—more importantly—concoct elixirs of immortality.
The word is Arabic in origin: al-kimia, al-khymia, or al-kīmyā. It’s how chemistry begins. Science as we now conceive it did not exist in the medieval period. (The word scientist only became commonplace in the nineteenth century, after Cambridge University historian William Whewell coined the term in 1833.) Instead, there was natural magic and philosophy—and alchemy, the experimental attempt to combine different elements and uncover the factual mysteries of nature.
One of the most important early alchemists was Jābir ibn Hayyān of Persia (721–815 CE), who sought a rejuvenating tincture called al-iksir—the elixir. Jābir never found it, but his books are full of directions for making things like fireproof paper and glow-in-the-dark ink. Unfortunately, it’s hard to glean anything concrete from Jābir’s experiments, as his writing is prolix to the point of impenetrability—an intentional maneuver. “The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for,” he wrote in The Book of Stones.
Baffling though they were, works of his such as Investigation of Perfection and The Book of Eastern Mercury had a wide enough readership to merit being translated into other languages. As alchemy rose in prominence, disputes about its limitations were raised, but no one knew its capacities with any certainty. The esteemed Persian physician Avicenna, also known as Ibn-Sina, decreed that it simply wasn’t possible to transform iron into gold, but that panaceas of eternal youth would eventually be discovered by chemico-medical researchers.
Both ideas captivated European alchemists. Translations of Jābir’s books had a profound effect on the British philosopher Roger Bacon (born circa 1214 CE), a Franciscan friar, “wondrous doctor,” and “excellent wise man.” His book The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth portrays aging as a curable disease. Its cause? Insalubrious living. With the correct use of healthsome ingredients, everyone should be able to live at least as long as biblical patriarchs such as Methuselah, who died at the age of 969. For Bacon, alchemy was a way to perfect ourselves, even to attain physical immortality. According to his calculations, maintaining our innate moisture entailed ingesting precise dosages of seven types of medicine, each containing various vital principles.
He prescribed powders made from gold, pearl, or coral. The connective tissue from a stag’s heart works wonders for energy levels, he counseled. Eating vipers and serpents was also highly commendable, as they are reborn by shedding their skins. (Dragons contain the most vital spirit, but they are hard to come across, Bacon granted, unless you happened to be in Ethiopia.) For gentlemen, the best remedy of all is breathing in the exhalations of virgin girls. The word gerocomy refers to the idea that a certain “vital principle” can be absorbed by aged men through proximity to young maidens. Bacon swore that it rejuvenates even the dustiest sesquicentenarian. Despite being charged with “suspected novelties” by the Vatican, Bacon himself lived almost to eighty, far longer than most of his contemporaries.
After Roger Bacon came Francis Bacon (no relation). Francis considered youthfulness to be a vital moisture in the body that could be replenished in various ways. He recommended wearing scarlet waistcoats and self-medicating with anything redolent of fresh earth or newly turned-up soil, such as strawberry leaves, raw cucumbers, vine leaves, and violets.
The concept of chemicals as medication was innovated and introduced by the sixteenth-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. Before him, healing remedies in the Western world were primarily plant-based, rather than chemically-derived drugs. An impetuous, pudgy warlock with scalpel eyes and a no-bullshit attitude, Paracelsus argued that alchemy’s aim is medicine rather than gold. His treatise on longevity De Vita Longa outlines ways to live for a thousand years, even forever. (Just as the word gibberish is thought to stem from the muddiness of Jābir’s writings, it isn’t easy to read Paracelsus’s books: his middle name was “Bombast.”) Like Jābir and Bacon, he spoke of attaining a life without end. He died in his forties without ever finding that mercury-based potion of immortality.
Alchemists deemed investigations into the nature of eternity to be voyages into the sylva sylvarum—the forest of forests. Getting lost was a prerequisite. Still, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, every major European town had its own “laborer of the fire” toiling away in a shady apothecary. Alchemical researchers often harmed themselves in their chimerical fossicking, ending up half asphyxiated by arsenic fumes or going blind from noxious vapors in their attempts to drink the quintessence of the universe. Many physicians from that epoch who are well respected today (such as Newton) also performed alchemical research. Newton likely died of mercury poisoning, as did countless gilders. Mercurous nitrate causes erratic, flamboyant behavior; its use by milliners in felting hats gave rise to the expression “mad as a hatter.”
Misguided though such efforts may appear in retrospect, they were an important step toward what we now consider scientific chemistry. Medieval alchemists learned how to alloy copper with zinc (yielding gold-like brass); they figured out how to make porcelain; they invented distilling equipment; and they harkened the scientific method’s approach by performing experiments over and over.
Their efforts weren’t all benign, however. Capitalizing on the hope that alchemy could find a way around death, countless swindlers rooked the upper classes with bogus medicaments for eternal life. Scoundrels like Alessandro di Cagliostro or the Count of Saint Germain grew rich selling immortality potions to wealthy patrons. One miracle docteur sold a concoction consisting almost entirely of tap water. Living forever was merely a matter of payment.
These hucksters thrived during times not entirely different from our own. “They were received into the centre of a small, skeptical and libertine world that had, in principle, rid itself of prejudice,” explains the Romanian historian of longevity Lucian Boia. “These people who pretended to believe in nothing at all, except, to some extent, in philosophy and science, were ripe to be caught in any trap that a person of speculative intelligence could set. Because they believed in nothing, they were ready to believe anything.”
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.