The madness of Isaac Newton

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Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time. His achievements were impressive: he explained the nature of light and colour; he established the theory of gravity and deduced how the solar system works; he devised the laws of motion; and he invented an early form of differential calculus. What is less well known is that he spent most of his time when he was Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, as an alchemist. When, in 1940, the economist John Maynard Keynes opened a box of Newton's papers that had lain undisturbed for 250 years, he was amazed to discover a collection of notebooks in which Newton had recorded his numerous attempts to make gold. In the years when he was writing his great works on physics and mathematics, he was actually spending much of his time carrying out alchemical experiments and copying out ancient alchemical texts.

Newton believed that the ancient alchemists knew how to make gold but that the secret had been lost. Nor was he alone in this belief. As we saw above, the great Robert Boyle thought it was possible, and John Locke the philosopher believed likewise. Indeed, Newton even cautioned Boyle about the need to remain silent about their alchemical interests.

Newton first experimented with mercury by dissolving it in nitric acid and then adding other things to the solution. When such experiments produced nothing worthwhile he turned to heating mercury with various metals in a furnace, and his assistant and room-mate John Wickins tells how he would sometimes work through the night. In one of his experiments he produced a kind of 'living' mercury that made gold swell. When nothing came of this, he turned his attention to antimony and by 1670 he had made the so-called Star Regulus, a dramatic form of antimony - see below.

In 1675 Newton wrote up his findings in a 1200-word manuscript known as the Clavis [Key]. He was 32-years-old but had gone grey, which he jokingly said was due to quicksilver. Although there is no connection between the two, there is a link between the body burden of several metals and their level in hair. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and antimony, are particularly attracted to the sulphur atoms in the keratin of hair and so it is possible by the analysis of a strand of hair to show whether that person had been exposed to a large dose of these toxic metals.

Newton's alchemical experiments appear to have reached a climax in the summer of 1693 when he wrote an account that is a combination of bizarre alchemical symbols and comments and is known as the Praxis [Doings] and this showed how unbalanced he had become. Isaac Newton was well known for being temperamental. Criticism of his work aroused in him an abnormal hatred of a rival and his feuds with other eminent scientists of the day such as Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz were more emotional than rational. At times, Newton withdrew into virtual isolation and in 1693, when he was 50-years-old, his behaviour became so abnormal that his sanity was even questioned.

The published correspondence of Newton contains a noticeable gap from 30 May to 13 September 1693, when he wrote a letter to Samuel Pepys in which he said that he had been suffering from poor digestion and insomnia for the past year and admitted that he had not been 'of my former consistency of mind'. In the same letter he displayed evidence of this by rebuking Pepys for suggesting that he had ever asked favours from him or from King James, and ended the letter by saying that he never wanted to see Pepys or any of his friends again. He later wrote to the philosopher John Locke, among others, to apologize for the things that he said to them earlier. He asked Locke to forgive him for saying that Locke had been trying to 'embroil me with women'. In another letter, written to a friend of Pepys, he asked him to explain to Pepys his odd behaviour and said that he had suffered 'a distemper that seized his head, and that kept him awake for about five nights together'.

From these and other letters, Newton's physical symptoms are revealed to be severe insomnia and loss of appetite, while his mental symptoms were delusions of persecution, extreme sensitivity to remarks that he saw as implied criticisms, and loss of memory, all typical symptoms of mercury poisoning. In 1979, two articles appeared together in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London which confirmed that Newton had indeed suffered this way. The first was by L. W. Johnson and M. L. Wolbarsht, the second by P. E. Spargo and C. A. Pounds. According to Johnson and Wolbarsht, Newton's symptoms were consistent with mercury poisoning. Proof that this might well have been the cause comes from the paper by Spargo and Pounds. They analysed samples of Newton's hair by neutron activation and atomic absorption analysis and found high levels of toxic elements (see Table 1.1) which show that he had about four times more lead, arsenic, and antimony than normal, and 15 times more mercury. Two authentic samples of Newton's hair had been preserved in the Earl of Portsmouth's family along with other relics of Newton's that went to his niece, whose daughter married the first Earl of Portsmouth. Samples of Newton's hair are also kept at Trinity College Cambridge, and a single hair found in one of his original note books was assumed to be from his head. One of Newton's hairs had a mercury level of 197 ppm and another had a lead level of 191 ppm, both of which would be a strong indication of chronic mercury and lead poisoning at some stage in his life.

These findings are not surprising because we read in his alchemical notebooks that he experimented with lead, arsenic, and antimony, and some of these he tried to volatilize by heating to high temperatures. He also admits to evaporating mercury over a fire, which was a particularly dangerous thing to do. Although there is no date for when these samples of hair were collected, most would probably have been cut from his head when he died in 1727. This being so then the level of mercury to which he was exposed in the critical period of 1693 would certainly have been much higher. In all cases

Table 1.1 Analysis of toxic elements in Newton's hair

Mercury

Lead

Arsenic

Antimony

Normal level/ppm

5

24*

0.7

°.7

Level in Newton's hair/ppm

73

93

3

4

* This refers to the average level in hair in 1979; today it would be much less.

* This refers to the average level in hair in 1979; today it would be much less.

they reveal a remarkably high level of exposure, suggesting that he was in fact exposed to other sources of mercury. One of those might well have been from the decorations in his rooms. Newton had a desire to be surrounded by the colour red and to this end he had the walls of his rooms painted red, and it is more than likely that vermilion was the pigment used.

Yet if Newton's strange behaviour in 1693 represented the effects of mercury, it did him little permanent harm because he lived to the ripe age of 84. It is not easy to say to what extent Newton's paranoid behaviour was due to mercury poisoning. He had such a sad childhood that his behaviour throughout life can be explained as due to his upbringing. His father died before he was born, his mother married again when he was two, and his stepfather, a parson, wanted nothing to do with him, so it was left to his grandmother to raise him. All his life he had pronounced psychotic tendencies but his exposure to mercury may well have contributed to his mental instability. Newton was never insane and indeed he was entrusted with overseeing the operations of the Royal Mint, was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703, and was knighted in 1705.

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Responses

  • Anke Mueller
    HOW DID MERCURY GOT TO THE HAIR OF ISAAC NEWTON?
    2 years ago
  • reagan
    Did isaac newton drink mercury?
    4 months ago
  • ANJA KORKEAOJA
    Why did they cut newtons hair after he died?
    4 months ago

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