From the Middle Ages to the late 17th-century, the so-called “philosopher’s stone” was the most sought-after goal in the world of alchemy, the medieval ancestor of chemistry. According to legend, the philosopher’s stone was a substance that could turn ordinary metals such as iron, tin, lead, zinc, nickel or copper into precious metals like gold and silver. It also acted as an elixir of life, with the power to cure illness, renew the properties of youth and even grant immortality to those who possessed it. The philosopher’s stone may not have been a stone at all, but a powder or other type of substance; it was variously known as “the tincture,” “the powder” or “materia prima.” In their quest to find it, alchemists examined countless substances in their laboratories, building a base of knowledge that would spawn the fields of chemistry, pharmacology and metallurgy.

Many of the Western world’s most brilliant minds searched for the philosopher’s stone over the centuries, including Roger Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and even Sir Isaac Newton, whose secretive dabblings in alchemy are well known by now. Long before Newton, however, there was Nicolas Flamel, a French bookseller and notary who lived in Paris during the 14th and early 15th centuries. In 1382, Flamel claimed to have transformed lead into gold after decoding an ancient book of alchemy with the help of a Spanish scholar familiar with the mystic Hebrew texts known as the Kabbala. Whether this was true or not, the historical record shows that Flamel did come into considerable wealth around this time, and donated his riches to charity. Harry Potter fans might recognize the name, as J.K. Rowling incorporated Nicolas Flamel into the first book in her world-famous series. Originally titled “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in the United Kingdom, it was renamed “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for U.S. publication.