Friday, August 20, 2010

Gilded Death

by Deborah Blum

In 16th century France, there lived a king with a beautiful and somewhat mysterious mistress.Diane de Poitiers was almost 20 years older than Henri II, but she looked like one of his contemporaries. She had skin of a near porcelain white and auburn hair as fine as silk thread.

Famed for her intellect as well as her beauty, Diane was not only the king's lover but one of his closest political advisors. He even encouraged her to sign some of his official correspondence HenriDiane. After Henri died in 1559, his angry and resentful widow banished Diane from the court. She died at the age of 66 seven years later at the Chateau d'Anet in northern France, a palace given to her by the enamored monarch. 

Her body was laid to rest near the castle's chapel, and it stayed there until the French Revolution (1787-1799), when revolutionaries dug it up and threw it into a ditch used for pauper burials.

And there the bodies stayed until a few years ago, when the burial pit was uncovered and Diane de Portiers' skeleton was identified (matching it through facial reconstruction and through a break in one leg from falling off a horse). But the archeologists also noted that her bones were unusually thin and fragile-looking, especially for a woman famed in her time as an athletic woman who swam daily and enjoyed vigorous horseback rides.

Suspecting a heavy metal poisoning of some kind, and remembering that some locks of her hair were preserved at Chateau d'Anet, they requested a toxicology screen. The analysis came back showing the hair loaded with metal, but definitely not one of the usual suspects: de Poitiers' hair contained the precious metal gold at 500 times above normal levels.

The chemical symbol for the metallic element gold is Au, taken from the Latin word aurum meaning 'shining dawn'. In the Periodic Table of Elements it occupies a companionable neighborhood of other metals, tucked neatly between platinum (Pt) and mercury (Hg). While gold is not as lethal as its famously deadly cousin mercury, it shares one important characteristic. The body tends to store it, meaning that it can slowly build up to dangerous levels.

As gold builds up in the body, it becomes destructive to bone marrow -- raising the possibility of blood-based diseases like anemia -- and to the bones themselves. It also can lead to a breaking down of other structural material, such as keratin, the protein which which forms hair and fingernails.

"Her hair was much finer than normal, which is a secondary effect of chronic gold poisoning," reported French researcher Philippe Charlier."It gives you white skin (from anemia) and very fragile hair, bones and teeth. She was in this fragile state when she died."

But why would de Poitiers's body contain such high levels of a precious metal? It was unlikely that she dined on her jewelry. Further research discovered that she was in the habit of drinking a gold elixir, prescribed by apothecaries of the time as a means of preserving youthfulness. The elixir contained gold chloride (AuCl3, one atom of gold for every three of chlorine) dissolved into a solvent.

Scholars suspect that this was such a chronic, low-level poisoning that de Poitiers probably never recognized the damage. Perhaps she worried about the thinning of her hair, perhaps she battled against the exhaustion of anemia. But she lived a reasonably long life -- 66 was definite elder status in the 1500s. Still, the conclusion of the French researchers who dug up her bones is that she probably would have lived even longer -- and stayed stronger -- if she hadn't been promised that eternal youth could be bottled in a golden elixir.


Anonymous said...
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Story Teller said...

I've never heard of poisoning by gold. Very interesting post!

Frederico said...

Dying of gold poisoning sounds like a remarkable way to go as a mistress to royalty. How interesting.

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