John Frederick Schweitzer Helvetius (1625–1709) was a Dutch court physician and alchemist who said he successfully transmuted LEAD into GOLD.
Helvetius was born John Frederick Schweitzer in 1625 in Kothen in the Duchy of Anhalt. He excelled in medicine and became the court physician to William of Orange.
By his own account, Helvetius was skeptical of magic, and he exposed false medicines of the day that were reputed to have magical curative powers. He especially was critical of sir Kenel M Digby’s “Sympathetic powder,” which he termed a “gigantic hoax.” But an encounter with a strange visitor caused him to reconsider his views and to plunge into an exploration of alchemy in a quest for the philosopher’s stone.
According to Helvetius, on the morning of December 27, 1666, a man dressed like a Mennonite paid an unexpected visit to him at his residence in The Hague. The man identified himself as Elias, an artist and brass founder from North Holland. He appeared to be in his midforties. Elias quizzed Helvetius on his skepticism about magic, suggesting that surely there must be a universal medicine or elixir such as claimed by ancient sages. Helvetius agreed that such a substance would be desirable but that he had never found any evidencethat a Philosopher’s Stone ever existed, nor had he ever attempted the Great Work himself.
Helvetius wrote that Elias then
. . . took from his bag an ivory box of cunning workmanship in which there were three large pieces of a substance resembling glass or pale sulphur and informed me that here was enough of the Tincture to produce twenty tons of gold. When I held the treasure in my hands for some fi fteen minutes listening to an account of its curative properties, I was compelled to return it, not without a certain degree of reluctance. After thanking him for his kindness I asked why it was that his Tincture did not display that ruby color which I had been taught to regard as characteristic of the Philosophers’ Stone. He replied that the color made no difference and that the substance was sufficiently mature for all practical purposes. He refused somewhat brusquely my request for a piece of his substance, were it no larger than a coriander seed, adding in a milder tone that he could not do so for all the wealth which I possessed; not indeed on account of its preciousness but for another reason that it was not lawful to divulge. Indeed, if fire could be destroyed by fire he would cast it rather into the flames. Then after a little consideration he asked whether I could not shew him into a room at the back of the house, where we should be less liable to observation. Having led him into the state parlor, he requested me to produce a gold coin, and while I was finding it he took from his breast pocket a green silk handkerchief wrapped about five medals, the gold of which was infinitely superior to that of my own money. Being filled with admiration, I asked my visitor how he had attained this most wonderful knowledge in the world, to which he replied that it was a gift bestowed upon him freely by a friend who had stayed a few days at his house, who had taught him also how to change common flints and crystals into stones more precious than rubies, chrysolites and sapphires. “He made known to me further,” said the artist, “the preparation of crocus of iron, an infallible cure for dysentry; of a metallic liquor, which was an efficacious remedy for dropsy, and of other medicines.” To this, however, I paid no great heed as I, Helvetius, was impatient to hear about the Great Secret of all.
According to Elias, his master instructed him in the drinking of this metallic liquor, giving him a glass of warm water to which white powder and an ounce of silver were added. The silver melted like ice. Drinking it, Elias discovered that it tasted like fresh milk and that its effect was “most exhilarating.”
On further instructions from the master, Elias melted a piece of lead water pipe. The master cut off a bit of crystal and tossed it in. After exposing the compound to a fierce fire, the master poured out a great mass of liquid gold upon the fl oor of the kitchen. He gave one-sixteenth of the gold to Elias to keep and told him to distribute the rest to the poor. Elias gave a large sum of money in trust to the Church of Sparrendaur. The master taught Eliza the Divine Art and then left.
Elias refused to give Helvetius any of the crystal but said that he would return in three weeks and give Helvetius something that would open his eyes.
Helvetius had secretly collected fingernail scrapings of one crystal, and in the meantime he attempted to transmute molten lead into gold. He produced only glassy earth and had to wait for the return of Elias. According to Helvetius:
He [Elias] returned punctually on the promised day and invited me to a walk, in the course of which we spoke profoundly on the secrets of Nature in fire, though I noticed that my companion was exceedingly reserved on the subject of the Great Secret. When I prayed him, however, to entrust me with a morsel of his precious Stone, were it no larger than a rape seed he delivered it like a princely donation. When I expressed a doubt whether it would be sufficient to tinge more than four grains of lead he eagerly demanded it back. I complied, hoping that he would exchange it for a larger fragment, instead of which he divided it with his thumb, threw half in the fire and returned the rest, saying “It is yet sufficient for you.”
Helvetius revealed his failed experiment. Elias, amused at his theft of some of the crystal, said that he would have succeeded had he wrapped the crystal substance in yellow wax to protect it from the fumes of the lead. The philosopher’s stone would have sunk to the bottom and transmuted into gold. This simplistic explanation sounded fraudulent to Helvetius.
The next day, January 19, Helvetius’s wife urged him to try a projection. Working with her, he melted half an ounce of lead and dropped in the wax-covered crystal. The mixture hissed and glowed in iridescence, then turned brilliant green and then blood red as it cooled. Within 15 minutes, Helvetius had an ingot of “the best and fi nest gold.” He wrote, “Yea, could I have enjoyed Argus’s eyes, with a hundred more, I could not sufficiently gaze upon this so admirable and almost miraculous a work of nature.”
Helvetius took the ingot to an assayer, who tested it and affirmed that it was “the most excellent gold in the whole world,” and offered to buy it at 50 florins per ounce.
Word of Helvetius’s achievement spread, and the next day he was visited by numerous illustrious persons and students who were curious to learn more. Even the Assayer-Master of the Mint came and tested the gold. Helvetius and others went to a silversmith, where Helvetius successfully transformed six drams and two scruples of lead and silver into “most pure gold.”
Helvetius wrote that this experience convinced him of the wisdom of the sages and that there existed a spiritual alchemy as well. He said that “through metals and out of metals, purified by highly refined and spiritualized metals, there may be prepared the Living Gold and Quicksilver of the Sages, which bring both metals and human bodies to perfection.”
In 1664, Helvetius was said to witness the projection of a pound of lead into part gold and part silver in The Hague by a silversmith named Gril. The silversmith used a tincture received from an alchemist, John Caspar Knoettner.
- Helvetius, John Frederick. The Golden Calf, Which the World Adores and Desires: In which is handled The most Rare and Incomparable Wonder of Nature, in Transmuting Metals; viz. How the intire Substance of Lead, was in one Moment Transmuted into Gold-Obrizon, with an exceeding small particle of the true Philosophick Stone. At the Hague. In the year 1666. Written in Latin by John Frederick Helvetius, Doctor and Practitioner of Medicine at the Hague, and faithfully Englished. London, 1670.
- Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
- Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.