Everyone has one of those embarrassing stories, or at least a nightmare, about voiding one’s bladder at the worst possible time or in the most inconvenient place. One story involves a young man who was assigned the after-dinner chore of taking the trash to the receptacle located in the backyard. This was performed immediately after the family finished eating, and the trashcan was some distance from the windows and not visible from the street. Next to the waste container was a sturdy tree with moss growing on one side. One day, the intrepid 10-year-old decided to conduct an experiment: could the moss be killed with urine? To test this theory, every time he emptied the trash the young man would urinate on the moss. Needless to say, the moss did not die. However, as a consequence of this experiment, whenever he passed the tree for any reason, he had an uncontrollable urge to urinate! And being a busy guy, would verify that nobody could see him, and relieve himself on the tree. This backyard bladder voiding continued until he left for college. Upon returning home during his freshman year, the tree was gone. Thankfully, this also eliminated his compulsion to urinate on the moss.
The history of science is full of happy accidents. For example, most people know that penicillin was discovered in 1928 when a few mold spores landed on some neglected petri dishes in a London lab. But not everyone has heard of Hennig Brand, a German merchant and amateur alchemist in the 1660s. Brand held a post as a junior army officer during the Thirty Years’ War, and his first wife’s dowry was substantial enough it allowed him to pursue alchemy on leaving the army.
Alchemy is a form of chemistry mixed with speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was principally concerned with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals and materials into gold or other precious metals. Another definition of alchemy is any seemingly magical process of transforming or combining elements into something new. Needless to say, alchemy is an ancient practice shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Western alchemists also sought “the tincture” or “the powder,” from which could be distilled an elixir of life that would cure illness, prolong life and bring about spiritual revitalization.
And Brand was convinced that through alchemy he could distill gold from an amber substance that he encountered every day: human urine. He especially wanted the urine of recent beer-drinkers (ICD-10-CM code R82.6, Abnormal urine levels of substances chiefly nonmedicinal as to source) because he was convinced that the dark yellow color would more easily turn into gold. He used his wife’s money to build a basement laboratory and employed his stepson as a lab assistant. Then he started collecting, amassing gallons and gallons of the yellowish fluid (the smell must have been staggering). And he started boiling, cooking, evaporating, testing and waiting.
By the time his first wife died he had exhausted her money on this pursuit. He then married his second wife Margaretha, a wealthy widow whose financial resources allowed him to continue the search. Around 1669 Brand heated residues from boiled-down urine on his furnace until the substance was red hot. At this point, glowing fumes filled the container, liquid dripped out and burst into flames. He caught the liquid in a jar and covered it, where it solidified and continued to give off a pale glow. So, in the end he didn’t make gold, he made phosphorus (named from the Greek for “light-bearing” or “light-bringer”).
Brand used about 1,500 gallons of urine to produce just 120 grams of phosphorus in his initial process. In actuality, one quart of adult human urine contains about 1.4 grams of phosphorus. It’s one of the six most abundant elements in any living organism, and is an incredibly powerful element. It has been used in deadly explosives and in the synthetic fertilizers. And of course there are phosphorus ICD-10-CM codes: Code E83.30 describes “disorder of phosphorus metabolism, unspecified;” and code E38.39 reports “other disorders of phosphorus metabolism.” There are also a set of codes in subcategory T57.1- that describe toxic effects of phosphorus and its compounds.
Phosphorus must have been a remarkable find for an alchemist. A product of man, and seeming to glow with a life force that didn't diminish over time. Brand kept his discovery secret, as alchemists of the time did, and worked with the phosphorus trying to use it to produce gold (never happened). But secrecy is not always the best approach. Robert Boyle, the Irish chemist, independently discovered phosphorus in 1680 and a priority dispute ensued since Brand had not published his results.
Known as “the Devil’s element” because it was once used in nerve agents and poisons, phosphorus was the first element to be chemically discovered and the 13th known to man. Throughout history, curious minds have turned mistakes, coincidences and surprises like the discovery of phosphorus into important scientific achievements.