Turning Urine into Gold and Hennig Brand’s “Folly”

Hennig Brand, (flourished 1670, Hamburg [Germany]), was a German chemist (alchemist, really) who, through his discovery of phosphorus, became the first known discoverer of an element.

The Famous Scientists website (see link below) provides us a bit about Brand’s personal life.

“In his late teens, Brand served as a soldier, perhaps a junior officer, in the 30 Years’ War (fought 1618–1648). This was a ruinous war in which millions died. It resulted from Ferdinand II’s desire, as Holy Roman Emperor, to impose Roman Catholicism on Germany’s Protestant northern states.

After the war, Brand is known to have done several things before he discovered phosphorus.

Earned money as a physician, calling himself Doctor, and adding M. D. behind his signature, although he had no recognized qualifications in medicine. (In fact, he was not known to understand Latin, so he was not educated in the sense we think of the word today.) He

  • Carried out alchemical research.
  • Learned the art of glass blowing, one of the essential skills of alchemy and chemistry. (There were no apparatus catalogs in those days: glassware was made locally, usually by the alchemist or his assistant.)
  • Married a wealthy wife, whose sizable dowry enabled him to fund his alchemical research.
  • Became a father.
  • Married a second wealthy wife, Margaretha, after the death of his first wife.”

Yet, Brand had not “supposedly” set out to discover phosphorus. He reportedly had planned to turn urine into gold. They are both yellow in cold, right? One must remember that in the 1600s, collecting urine was not as weird as it might seem nowadays. Urine was used to fertilize crops and soften leather and (yuck) even clean one’s teeth.

Alchemy was a medieval science and philosophy. Those who practiced it had hope to turn base metals into gold through a process called “transmutation.” Therefore, Brand thought that he could create gold by altering urine, which was supplied to him by his fellow soldiers. Brand spent months collecting urine in buckets, until he had accumulated such buckets. He placed said buckets in his basement to “age,” permitting the water to evaporate and the urine to concentrate.

https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/hennig-brandt-and-the-discovery-of-phosphorus ~ The Alchymist (1775) by engraver William Pether, after the 1771 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.

A military officer and self-styled physician, Brand has often received the undeserved title “last of the alchemists” because of his continual search for the philosopher’s stone, which reputedly could change base metals into gold. About 1669 he isolated from urine a white, waxy material and named it phosphorus (“light bearer”), because it glowed in the dark. Although Brand kept his process a secret, phosphorus was discovered independently in 1680 by an English chemist, Robert Boyle.

In his experiments, Brand ended up with a vibrant blue-green substance which seemed to glow both in the daylight and in the dark. Yet, he could not get the substance to do anything except to glow.

Later, Daniel Kraft, who was also a German alchemist (about 1675) purchased Brand’s blue “goo,” turning into “Magic Tricks.” He would light candles with the “goo.” He would make explosions. He would write blue-green words with it. He made a fortune on Brand’s discovery by marketing it to the rich and famous and to royalty as a “gimmick” for entertainment purposes. So, although Brand did not turn urine into gold, people have made millions using the phosphorus he discovered.

If you want more check out the video listed below. It is quite entertaining!


Famous Scientists

Hennig Brand (Britannica)

Know the History of Alchemy and Its Chemical Experiments (Video)

Science History Institute


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Turning Urine into Gold and Hennig Brand’s “Folly”

  1. Glynis says:

    Phew! Thank goodness I read to the end before rushing out to buy a chamber pot! Especially as I don’t have a cellar to store it while waiting for it to turn into gold! But apparently it doesn’t so I’ve saved myself time and money! Thanks for this entertaining post!

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