Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Philosophers’ Stone: history and myth

S.E.S. Medina
Benbrook, Texas, United States


Circular dragon around a circle containing a triangle, square, and then another circle
The ouroboros and the squared circle. The ouroboros is an ancient symbol where the metaphysical property of infinity is represented by a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail. Its image is often used in alchemical texts from the Middle Ages. Contained within the ouroboros is the squared circle, an alchemical symbol delineating the synergy of the four elements of matter resulting in the creation of the Philosophers’ Stone. (Original artwork by S.E.S. Medina, MD)

“Of all Elixirs, Gold is supreme and the most important for us . . . gold can keep the body indestructible . . . Drinkable gold will cure all illnesses, it renews and restores.”

Paracelsus (1493–1541 AD) – Coelum Philosophorum1


“The universal medicine which cures all human and metallic diseases is concealed in gold and its magnet (antimony)”

Johannes de Monte Snyder (1625–1670 AD) Commentaire Sur la Médecine Universalle (Alchimie)1


Alchemy is an ancient philosophy or practice that tantalized scholars and fortune seekers with a promise of immortality and wealth. It was supposed to achieve these aims by means of a legendary substance called the “Philosophers’ Stone.” This was believed to consist of two interrelated substances, one conferring unnatural longevity to anyone who drank it (Aurum Potabile—gold that is safe to drink), the other used to transmute base metals such as lead, mercury, or copper, into alchemical gold.

The Chinese first prepared and used colloidal gold as an alchemical drug of longevity.2 In fact, the word “alchemy” has its origin in the Chinese words: Kim (gold) and Yeh (juice). The Arabs took the word “kimyeh” (gold juice) and added the definitive article, al, creating the word “al-kimiya,” which then evolved into alchemy.2

In Western culture, an Egyptian-born Greek alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300 AD) first described the Stone in his Cheirkometa.3 He contended that the women of Earth were taught metallurgy and the fabrication of the Stone when taken as wives by the fallen angels of heaven.3 Adam is supposed to have passed knowledge of the Philosophers’ Stone to the biblical patriarchs (such as Methuselah), which would account for their unnaturally long life spans.1

In the second century AD, the Alexandrian alchemist and scholar, Maria Hebrea, described two methods to fabricate the Stone.1 These became known as the Ars Magna (Great Art) and the Ars Brevis (Brief Art). At the time of her work alchemy was called chrysopoeia—meaning making gold. Later, the knowledge about the Philosophers’ Stone’s nature and uses became corrupted, and it was erroneously understood that the Stone’s function was to transform base metals into genuine gold. Rather, alchemical gold was a process where antimony and copper were “fermented” with the Elixir (Philosophers’ Stone) and thus transmuted (changed) into prized gold-antimonial bronze known as alchemical gold.1

George Starkey (1628–1665), a Colonial American physician and alchemist, wrote:

Some alchemists who are in search of our Arcanum seek to prepare something of a solid nature, because they have heard the object of their search described as a Stone.

Know, then, that it is called a stone, not because it is like a stone, but only because, by virtue of its fixed nature, it resists the action of fire as successfully as any stone. In species it is gold, more pure than the purest; it is fixed and incombustible like a stone, but its appearance is that of a very fine powder.1

In Western alchemical circles, the Philosophers’ Stone appeared around the twelfth century; and later the Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon wrote that the Stone could transform imperfect metals into perfect metals as well as extend human life.1 During the German Renaissance, Paracelsus (1493–1541), physician, philosopher, and alchemist, focused on the medicinal use of alchemical products instead of manufacturing alchemical gold. He wrote with relish of the psycho-spiritual awakening and physical longevity occurring from ingestion of the Philosophers’ Stone elixir.1 He called the Stone the “Tincture of the Philosophers” and postulated it was the secret “elixir of life.”

Illustration of a griffin, alchemical symbol for the stone
The Griffin. The mythical Greek chimera of eagle and lion, known as the griffin, symbolized the completed Philosophers’ Stone for alchemists. The imaginary creature personified the unification of “fixed” gold and “volatile” antimony.1 (Original artwork by S.E.S. Medina, MD)

The three components necessary for confecting the Stone include:

  1. Gold–the prime ingredient.
  2. Antimony–this metalloid element occurs in nature as a sulfide ore (stibnite – Sb2S3). Once purified, antimony was called regulus in medieval times, or earlier in history, flowers of antimony. Both purified antimony and stibnite are employed at specific phases in the archetypal synthesis.
  3. Flux/Menstruum–this final constituent possessed the ability to dissolve gold without corrosion, yet kept the capacity to congeal, coagulate, or crystallize, under the ideal conditions. By far, the most guarded secret for creating the Stone is the nature of the flux, also called the universal solvent.1

Most successful Alexandrian, Islamic, and European alchemist’s efforts yielded a species of red-colored, colloidal gold-antimony oxysulfate crystals, the coveted prize:1


The Philosophers’ Stone

For thousands of years, traditional Indian-Hindu medicine has claimed preparations containing gold4, 5, 6 have antioxidant and rejuvenating properties.6, 7 In the Bible we read that Moses, on returning from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and finding the Hebrews conducting an orgy around a golden calf, seized it and converted it into drinkable gold. This is the earliest record of processed gold consumed by human beings.1 (Exodus 32:20)

Over the centuries, many therapeutic uses have been attributed to gold. Aurum potable (“gold which is safe to drink”) is a chemically non-reactive colloidal gold whose nano-dimensions allow gastrointestinal absorption and concentration in a variety of organs and tissues without causing human illness because of its intrinsic inertness.8 It was used in the sixteenth century by Paracelsus to treat epilepsy.8, 9 In the seventeenth century, a gold-based “cordial” was described in pharmacopeias and advocated to manage ailments punctuated by a decrease in the “vital spirits,” such as fainting, fevers, melancholia, and “falling sickness” (epilepsy).10

In the nineteenth century, gold was used to treat syphilis. The French physician, J.A. Chrestien, published a paper titled “Researches and observations on the effects of preparations of gold in the treatment of many diseases and notably in syphilitic maladies.” He noted that gold had much milder side-effects when compared to mercury, the usual therapeutic used against syphilis at that time. James Compton Burnett, a physician and homeopath, published in 1879 a long treatise on gold as a medicinal agent. He reported: “Gold is an excitant. The patients feel an indestructible sense of well-being, they feel themselves lighten (as they express it) . . . The intellectual faculties are more active. It has been known to produce frequent erotic salacity on to painful priapism.”9

At the close of the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth, gold was listed as a nervine in medical texts, including the first Merck Manual.9 Potter’s Materia Medica, based on the US pharmacopeia of 1890, states “. . . salts of gold promote appetite and digestion, stimulate the cerebral functions, produce marked mental exhilaration . . . aphrodisiac effects on both sexes . . . increase of the menstrual discharge. Amenorrhea and impotence . . . may be cured by it.”11 Stedman’s Practical Medical Dictionary in 1942 listed gold bromide as a treatment for epilepsy, headache, and alcoholism. The American physician, Leslie Keeley (1832–1900), used chlorides of sodium and gold, with a third, closely guarded, “secret” ingredient, to treat addictions, which included opiates and cocaine.

On February 13, 1894, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial describing Keeley’s remarkable therapeutic accomplishments. It cited a recent summary of over 1,000 patients in whom more than 90% achieved a long-term cure of their addictions. Keeley is estimated to have treated 100,000 patients over his lengthy career, but the identity of his “secret” ingredient died with him.9 In the nineteenth century, microscopists discovered that stains made from gold salts possessed an affinity for brain tissue, enhancing the visual distinctions between white and gray matter, as well as the visualization of neuroglia, astrocytes, nerve fibers, sheaths, and cells.9, 12

More recently gold-containing medications have been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, asthma, pemphigus, and systemic lupus.13 Side-effects included skin and gastrointestinal reactions, and rarely painful neuropathy, insomnia, peripheral motor neuropathy, acute lupus, and encephalopathy with depression, delirium, and psychoses.

Studies of the potential benefits of nano-particle gold therapy include a possible protective effect of gold nanoparticles (Au-NPs) in a murine reperfusion/focal cerebral ischemia injury study, inhibition of pro-Alzheimer’s disease amyloid-β aggregates,14 anti-angiogenesis effect by inhibition of cytokines controlling angiogenesis in malignancy and in proliferative retinopathy, and delivery of custom-ligand-synthesized Au-NPs studded with monoclonal antibodies, peptides, and other molecular ligands toxic to the target malignant cells.15, 16 

In infectious diseases, Au-NPs have been discovered to cross the normally impenetrable blood-brain-barrier easily.17 Studies have described an association between HSV-1 cerebral infections and neurodegenerative disorders.17 One researcher found Au-NPs prevented HSV-1 infection in neuronal cell cultures, thus potentially disrupting the development of neurodegenerative symptoms because of CNS HSV-1.17 In other studies gold-based compounds, such as auranofin, were found to elevate the CD4+ T-cell counts in HIV patients who had been treated for psoriatic arthritis.18

For the “modern alchemist,” newer means to synthesize Au-NPs have been developed since the work 150 years ago by Michael Faraday, who first observed that colloidal gold solutions have properties distinct from bulk gold. Current methods take advantage of the unique attributes of Au-NPs. These include size- and shape-dependent optical and electronic features, high surface-to-volume ratio, and surfaces that can be modified by the addition of ligands possessing chemical functional groups such as thiols, phosphines, and amines. By employing these functional groups to anchor ligands chemically, moieties such as proteins, oligonucleotides, and antibodies can be added, expanding the therapeutic possibilities of nano-particle gold.19, 20

In closing, I encourage an open-minded approach to exploring the potential benefits of the “Philosophers’ Stone,” in human medicine and metaphysics.



  1. Laport JE, Gabrielsson R. Cracking the Philosophers’ Stone: Origins, Evolution and Chemistry of Gold-Making. Quintessence Publishing. 2009.
  2. Mahdihassan S. Cinnabar-Gold as the Best Alchemical Drug of Longevity, called Makaradhwaja in India – American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 1985; 13: 93-108.
  3. Andrew Ede, Lesley B. Cormack. A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility. University of Toronto Press. p .66. 2016.
  4. Sharma H, Chandola HM, Singh G, Basisht G. (2007). Utilization of Ayurveda in Health Care: An Approach for Prevention, Health Promotion, and Treatment of Disease, the Science of Life. 13(9), 1011-9
  5. Saper, Robert B., et.al. Heavy Metal Products Content of Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine. JAMA. 2004: 292 (23): 2868‐73
  6. Sravani K, et al. A Review on Traditional Ayurvedic Preparations Containing Gold. International Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemical Research. 2017: 9(6); 801-807.
  7. Sharma Sadanand, Rasa Tarangini, 11th edition, Varanasi: Motilal Banarsidas 1979: chapter 15:70, chapter 15:11-116.
  8. Ternkin O. The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginnings of Modern Neurology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1971.
  9. Richards, DG, et al. Gold and its Relationship to Neurological/Glandular Conditions. Intern J Neuroscience. 2002; 112: 31-53
  10. Fricker SP. Medical Uses of Gold Compounds: Past, Present and Future. Gold Bulletin. 1996; 29: 53-60.
  11. Potter SOL. A Compend of Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Prescription Writing, with Especial Reference to the Physiological Actions of Drugs. 6th Ed., 1902. Philadelphia: Blakiston’s Sons & Co.
  12. Ramon y Cajal S. Histology of the Nervous System. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995.
  13. Fricker SP. Medical Uses of Gold Compounds: Past, Present and Future. Gold Bulletin. 1996; 29: 53-60.
  14. Kiao YH, et al. Negatively Charged Gold Nanoparticles Inhibit Alzheimer’s Amyloid-β Fibrillization, Induce Fibril Dissociation, and Mitigate Neurotoxicity. Small. 2012 Dec 7; 8(23):3631-9. doi: 10.1002/smll.201201068.
  15. Singh P, et al. Gold Nanoparticles in Diagnostics and Therapeutics for Human Cancer. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2018; 19, 1979; doi:10.3390/ijms19071979.
  16. Bahrami, B. et al. Nanoparticles and Targeted Drug Delivery in Cancer Therapy. Immunol. Lett. 2017; 190, 64–83.
  17. Rodriguez-Izquierdo I, et al. Gold Nanoparticles Crossing Blood-Brain Barrier Prevent HSV-1 Infection and Reduce Herpes Associated Amyloid-β secretion. J Clin. Med. 2020; 9, 155; doi:10.3390/jcm9010155.
  18. Fonteh PN, et al. HIV Therapeutic Possibilities of Gold Compounds. Biometals. 2010 Apr; 23(2):185-96. doi: 10.1007/s10534-010-9293-5.
  19. Daniel MC, et al. Gold Nanoparticles: Assembly, Supramolecular Chemistry, Quantum-Size-Related Properties, and Applications Toward Biology, Catalysis, and Nanotechnology. Chem Rev. 2004; 104: 293.
  20. Hornos Caneiro MF, et al. Gold Nanoparticles: A Critical Review of Therapeutic Applications and Toxicological Aspects. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2016; 19(3-4): 129-48.



S. E. S. MEDINA, MD, is a retired Internal Medicine specialist with a sub-specialty in Infectious Diseases. His initial medical training took place at the New York University School of Medicine in the late 1970s when the AIDS epidemic was just beginning, working with severely ill HIV infected patients. Clinical research under Dr. Linda Laubenstein during his fourth year at the NYU Medical School resulted in a contributing paper which was included in the first medical textbook on AIDS.

Dr. Medina would like to acknowledge the creative and editorial contributions of his nephew and godson, David I. Banchs, in the writing of this story.


Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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