Immortality has fascinated humans for as long as death has scared us. To live forever, monks in Japan practiced self-mummification, while European alchemists attempted to brew the Elixir of Life. Even during World War II, at least one ambitious scientist hoped to find the key to eternal youth.
Albert MagnusWikimedia Commons
Albert Magnus (Albert the Great) lived for 80 years in the 1200s, so maybe his longevity is to blame for rumors of his quest for immortality.
He was the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages who also dabbled in alchemy, one of the fundamental fields of the time.
There is not a lot of evidence that he was an alchemist, but many people put his name on their alchemic books to add prestige, crediting him with discovering arsenic and doing the first experiments with photosensitive chemicals.
According to legend, Albert first witnessed the transmutation of gold from other materials. Then he discovered the philosopher's stone and passed it on to his student Thomas Aquinas.
Diane de PoitiersWikimedia Commons
In 1500s France, common anti-aging medicine included ingredients like spider webs, earthworms, frogspawn, and scorpion oil. But the mistress of King Henry II chose a pricier way to stay young—she took "drinkable gold," which was said to harness the power of the sun.
In reality, Diane's beauty was due to good genes and level of exercise—she loved riding horses, hunting, and going on daily swims. She was notorious in the court, wielding a lot of influence and power.
When Henry was critically pierced during a jousting tournament, his lance had her ribbon tied around it, instead of a token from his wife. This meant that the king had been fighting for Diane's honor, and his wife was so enraged that she kept Diane from his deathbed and funeral.
Diane died at age 66, two years after breaking her leg in a riding accident. The drinkable gold left her with a fashionable anemic paleness and weak bones. Upon reburial, her hair was examined to find gold 500 times above normal levels, along with mercury—an ingredient in the elixir.
Nicolas FlamelWikimedia Commons
Flamel lived during the late 14th and early 15th centuries as a scholar and scribe. He is said to have dedicated his life to translating a mysterious 21-page book of alchemy that carried the recipe for the Philosopher's Stone, which could turn base metals into gold. He and his wife Perenelle supposedly achieved immortality using the book's secrets.
However, Flamel is recorded to have died in Paris in 1418, and there is no real evidence of his involvement in alchemy. In life, the Flamel couple were known for their wealth and generosity and did work on hieroglyphic translations, all of which may have sparked the legends.
By the mid-17th century, all alchemists dreamed of being like the famous Nicolas Flamel.
Qin Shi HuangWikimedia Commons
Qin Shi Huang was the first leader of unified China. He was the first to use the title "emperor" instead of "king," which became the standard for two millennia. Under his rule, China constructed the Great Wall, a national road system, and the Terracotta Army.
After surviving many assassination attempts, it was the emperor's own hubris that killed him. Desperate to find immortality, he sent a servant out with ships full of hundreds of people to look for the mythical island Penglai, home to immortals and the Elixir of Life.
While touring Eastern China, Qin Shi Huang died, probably from mercury poisoning from "immortality pills" made by his alchemists. His tomb has never been opened and is said to be surrounded by a river of mercury.
Qin Shi Huang was the first of many Chinese emperors who tried to live forever.
Emperor JiajingWikimedia Commons
Beijing's Forbidden City imperial palace was only a century old when Emperor Jiajing was in the middle of the Ming' Dynasty's second longest reign.
Many saw Jiajing as a cruel man who was pushing China into corruption and chaos. In 1542, a group of his concubines made plans to assassinate him by strangulation. They failed, and the women and their families were executed via slow slicing—the methodical removal of body parts.
Maybe this was the turning point for Jiajing, because he moved out of the palace, recruited a new group of 13-year-old concubines, and began spending exorbitant amounts on the building of Taoist temples.
Jiajing also turned to alchemy in the pursuit of eternal life, calling on the best Chinese alchemists. He died of mercury poisoning while trying to create the Elixir of Life out of rare minerals, including jade.
Japanese Buddhist MonksAmusing Planet
To prevent decomposition, a mummifier usually removes the organs. Researchers in the 1960s were thus surprised at the fully intact mummies of Japan's Yamagata province—their organs had begun to dry before death.
To remove the illusions of the physical world, earn over a million years in heaven, and achieve enlightenment before reincarnation, the most devoted Shingon Buddhist monks mummified themselves as an act of salvation for humanity.
A monk would eat only fruit and nuts for three years, then pine needles and bark for another three. He would even drink poison tea to keep insects away from his body.
Finally, the monk would meditate in a tomb using a breathing tube. He would ring a bell occasionally to signal that he was still alive, and when it stopped, his acolytes sealed the tomb. After another three years, they opened it. If the monk's body had no decay, he was worshipped as a Living Buddha. Even if he failed, he was buried with special honors. Out of hundreds, only 24 monks ever achieved "Living Buddha" status.
In 1877, Japan's Emperor Meiji outlawed self-mummification, and today, nobody advocates for it.
Alexander BogdanovWikimedia Commons
Bogdanov, a Soviet physician, philosopher, activist, science fiction writer, and feminist, was certainly a unique thinker. He was a high-ranking officer during the Russian Revolution and invented tectology, the precursor to systems theory. Here he is playing chess with Lenin in 1908.
In 1924, Bogdanov founded theInstitute for Hematology and Blood Transfusion, hypothesizing that he could achieve eternal youth by using human blood.
Even Lenin's sister was on board, and Bogdanov ended up having no less than 11 transfusions himself. The last patient's blood was infected with malaria and tuberculosis, or perhaps was incompatible with Bogdanov's blood type, and Bogdanov died.
Today, some scholars think that Bogdanov may have killed himself, because he wrote a strange letter before his death, and had a number of political enemies.
Isaac NewtonWikimedia Commons
One of the influential scientists of all time lived in a world where science easily overlapped with superstition and pseudoscience. Before chemistry really existed as a discipline, Newton took part in alchemy and occult studies. He even tried to find science within the Bible, predicting that the world would end around 2060.
Over a decade of Newton's writing was lost in a lab fire, but surviving texts suggest that he too sought the Philosopher's Stone. He collected numerous books on the Stone, including studies of Flamel.
Newton may have had to work on this project in secret since the British Crown sometimes persecuted alchemists. While working on alchemy in the second half of his life, Newton suffered a nervous breakdown, experiencing insomnia, apathy, loss of appetite, and paranoia—probably due to mercury, arsenic, or lead poisoning.
Many believe that Newton did indeed succeed in important alchemic discoveries, but that he destroyed the evidence before his death.
The Count of St. GermainWikimedia Commons
No one is quite sure when this man was born, and some say he never died. He was a high-ranking French nobleman with jet-black hair, who went by a dozen different names—not uncommon for the time.
By all accounts, the Count was very odd, and perhaps an excellent con man. He was a ladies' man who sold cosmetics and dyes and was discreetly very rich. He is said to have played the violin and piano like a master, painted, spoke 10 languages, and studied philosophy and science. Oh, and he almost never slept or ate.
The Count would deflect questions about his past and claim to be hundreds of years old. He was known to Anton Mesmer, Casanova, Madame de Pampadour, Voltaire, King Louis XV, Catherine the Great, and George Washington.
In 1779, Saint Germain traveled to Schleswig (between Germany and Denmark). He met Prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel and claimed to be 88 years old. Charles funded the Count's alchemy, which included a new method of coloring cloth, fusing diamonds together, and creating gems.
In 1784, it was recorded that the Count died and was buried. However, many of his favorite personal belongings were nowhere to be found.
"Born" in Lyon in 1940, Frenchman Richard Chanfray told the world that he was none other than the immortal Count of Saint Germain.
He made his announcement in Paris in the '70s and appeared on French television, where he apparently turned lead into gold on a camp stove.
From 1972 to 1981, Chanfray was the lover of Dalida. She was one of the world's most famous singers, selling 170 million albums worldwide.
Chanfray vanished in 1983 from Saint Tropez, supposedly having committed suicide by inhaling the exhaust gas of his Renault 25 car. In 1987, Dalida also took her own life. She overdosed on barbiturates, leaving a note that said: "Life has become unbearable for me... Forgive me."
Legends say that The Count of Saint Germain has been sighted around the world ever since.