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All that glitters...: A Christmas tale about the dangers of chasing youthfulness

December 28, 2009 | 12:50 pm

A French courtesan who was a favorite of King Henri II despite the fact that she was nearly 20 years older than him apparently inadvertantly poisoned herself with gold in an attempt to maintain a youthful appearance, forensic examiners and archaeologists have determined. The courtesan in question was the renowned Diane de Poitiers, who died in 1566 at age 66. Her porcelain skin and fine hair were distinctive, and she was an exceptionally athletic woman who swam, hunted and rode horses every day. The circumstances of her death have previously been somewhat mysterious.

The lady's mummified remains were dug up from her grave by revolutionists in 1795, and then thought to be reburied in a mass grave--although fragments of her hair were preserved at the Chateau d'Anet. In 2008, archaeologists digging up the mass grave near a statue of De Poitiers in Anet found the remains of a woman that could have been her. A team headed by Joel Poupon of Lariboisiere Hospital in Paris and Philippe Charlier of the Raymond Poincare Hospital in Garches examined the skeleton and found that arthritic lesions and tooth loss were appropriate for De Poitiers. Tibia and fibula fractures corresponded to those she had sustained in a riding accident in 1565, and the skull showed a perfect match to the mandible and left jawbone in the last portrait of her by Francois Clouet.

Analysis of the hair and of the putrefaction fluids surrounding her bones showed high levels--perhaps even toxic levels--of gold. De Poitiers was known to drink a gold solution in the mornings to maintain her youthful appearance, and the levels of gold in her hair and the fluids suggest that this is what eventually did her in, the researchers reported online in the BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal.

Drinkable gold was made in several ways, such as by dissolving gold in nitrohydrochloric acid or dissolving gold chloride in diethyl ether, which is presumably the form used by De Poitiers. The regenerative powers of gold had been a subject of speculation since at least the time of the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, circa AD 23-79. It was used as a treatment for arthritis and was favored by women because the anemia it produced caused their skins to become very pale. It also makes hair thinner (finer) than normal.

It would appear that De Poitiers' efforts to maintain a good appearance for Henri were successful. But she apparently paid a high price for her success.

A video detailing the researchers' efforts is available here.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II