New book explores how a vat of rotten urine led to one of science’s big breakthroughs

Rob Waugh
Hennig's "recipe" led to the discovery of phosphorus - used in matches (Rex)

The soldiers stationed near Hamburg must have thought Hennig Brand was mad - he collected gallon after gallon of their urine in a vat, then left it to go off “for weeks”.

What the forty-ish merchant did with it afterwards smelt even worse.

The German ex-soldier's recipe was full of mistakes, says Tom Jackson, author of A History of the Periodic Table, but his research led to him becoming the first named person to discover a new element, phosphorus in 1669. It's used in matches and fertiliser today.

Brand was was misguided in one thing, though - there was absolutely no need for him to leave his vat of urine “until it reeked”. The recipe would have worked with fresh urine.

“He was an alchemist,” says Jackson, “He wasn’t trying to discover elements - he wanted an elixir of eternal life, or something that would turn lead into gold and make him the world’s richest man.”

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It’s perhaps easier to understand why Brand was willing to labour over a stinking vat of human urine, adding oils and ashes, and heating it day and night, when he was under the impression that a life of inconceivable wealth awaited him.

“Instead, his recipe led to this molten substance which turned into a stone that glowed in the dark,” says Jackson. “He must have thought it was magical - and he continued to use the phosphorus in attempts to turn lead into gold. The name means a combination of the morning and evening stars.”

Other “alchemists” followed Brand’s recipe for phosphorus, hoping that while he had failed to turn lead into gold, it might be possible using his “cold fire”. The recipe remained a closely guarded secret, which Brand sold to fellow researchers.

Brand’s recipe contained a few errors, but worked - and can be replicated today by boiling (fresh) urine. Phosphorus is one of the most vital elements for life, and is used in fertilisers today.

“Brand, of course, didn’t make much money out of it,” says Jackson. “But he did become the first named person to discover an element. In the 1660s, people knew that the elements existed - a simple substance that can’t be broken down into simpler ingredients.

“They knew the classical elements - sulphur, carbon, iron gold. Brand was the first man whose name became attached to one,” says Jackson.

The Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table by Tom Jackson is out now.

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