On this day, one James Price, a distinguished amateur chemist and a Fellow of England’s Royal Society began a series of remarkable experiments. The seven experiments were witnessed by peers, baronets, clergymen. lawyers and chemists – men of unimpeachable public character. In these experiments, mercury was apparently transmuted into various quantities of gold and silver. Some of the gold was presented to His Majesty George III.
Price became a celebrated figure, and many saw in his work the dawning of an era of unparalleled prosperity for England. Naysayers claimed that Price was merely a clever juggler or that he had deceived himself. In his favor were the facts that he was already a wealthy man and no needy adventurer and that he had already distinguished himself in chemistry.
A fierce paper battle ensued over the veracity of the experiments, and eventually the Royal Society stepped in, calling upon Price as a fellow of the society to prove to the satisfaction of his fellow fellows the truth of his transmutations by repeating his experiments in their presence.
Price dithered, making various excuses for not repeating the experiments (one of which was that it cost more to produce gold than the gold was worth). Finally, however, he yielded to their exhortations and announced that he would leave London for his laboratory in country to prepare for the experiment. He pledged to return in a month, but the month passed, and a second and a third. Six months passed, and even his friends had given up on him. Just when everyone was convinced he had fled to France or some other criminal haven, he reappeared, inviting members of the Royal Society to meet him at his laboratory for the experiment.
Although only a year earlier they were contending for the honor of witnessing the experiments, only three society fellows accepted his invitation. Stepping before them, Price hastily produced a flask and swallowed its contents. Noting a sudden change in his appearance, the visitors called for medical assistance, but in a few moments Price was dead.
One thing was sure. Price had not transmuted himself to gold. It is speculated that in the beginning he had probably deceived himself, then in the usual slippery slope of skullduggery attempted to deceive others, and finally, lacking the moral courage to confess his mistake, checked himself out. In any event, the last belief in the possibility of alchemy among England’s scientific community came to an end in 1782 with Price’s death.
Thinking to get at once all the gold the goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find — nothing. — Aesop