Archive for December 18th, 2009

French King’s mistress overdosed on gold

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Diane de Poitiers at her bath, François Clouet, c. 1571Diane de Poitier was King Henry II’s mistress in the 16th century. She was a renown beauty, athletic and intelligent. She kept Henry’s interest until his death, despite being 20 years older than him.

Perhaps that age difference is one of the reasons she seems to have sought an elixir of youth from apothecaries. Unfortunately for Diane, said apothecaries held to the alchemical principle that gold is the immutable and perfect element. If you want to retain your youthful perfection, therefore, ingesting some form of gold would seem to be the way to go.

A contemporary of hers historian, soldier and biographer Pierre de Bourdeille, said she was beautifully pale even without makeup, that she looked 30 when she was twice that age and took a daily dose of gold to achieve this remarkable effect. It’s only recently that anyone has been able to use modern chemical analysis to confirm his story.

Jaw bone fragment superimposed on Diane de Poitiers' last portraitDiane de Poitier died in her chateau Anet in 1566. She was buried in an elaborate tomb in a funeral chapel, but her remains were removed and thrown into a pit outside the chateau walls during the French Revolution.

Last year some of her bones were found, confirmed as hers by a healed united fracture of the tibia and fibula which she was known to have sustained during a riding accident in 1565. The remaining jaw bone also matched perfectly the last portrait of her from the school of François Clouet.

Now French scientists have analyzed tissue and hair remnants and found an extremely high concentration of gold, 500 times greater than in a lock of hair from her younger days preserved at the chateau. She didn’t wear crowns or gold fabric every day so the gold wasn’t externally applied. They also found her bones were fragile — unexpectedly so for an athletic woman who swam and rode daily — and her hair was thin and brittle. Both of those are symptoms of gold poisoning.

The British Medical Journal which has published the study has an informative video about Diane de Poiters and her gold habit here. Much to my disappointment, the BMJ is not immune to the tedious trend of historical reenactments cluttering up a documentary, but there’s a lot of great info about the science in amidst shadowy scenes of Diane looking in mirrors or visiting an alchemist.

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