“Eau de Cologne and the Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, or: The Birth of Chemistry from Spiritus and Scent”

In August 2020, I purchase a copy of Ernst Rosenbohm’s 1951 publication Kölnisch Wasser (“Eau de Cologne”) from an antiquarian online bookseller near Frankfurt. The scientific literature on perfumes and Eau de Cologne that I read for my current research project on the “Olfactories of Hygiene” is rather limited, so I’m quite excited when I discover what looks like a thorough study on the topic.

A few days later, a heavy book of 600-odd pages complete with dark blue cloth binding, golden letters and thread-stitching arrives by mail. As I open its cover, several sheets of paper fall out. They turn out to be the copy of a verdict brought in by a court in Cologne in 1951. The case was brought to action by a group of ten local producers of Eau de Cologne against another one for using cheap and potentially hazardous methanol instead of high-quality ethanol. I didn’t even know there were so many producers of Eau de Cologne around in Cologne during the mid-twentieth century! The book must have been in the possession of one of those involved, I assume. The most spectacular finding however turns out to be the story told at the beginning of the first of its two volumes: the birth of chemistry from the alchemical quest for the philosopher’s stone; a quest that resulted in the proclamation of an “elixir of immortality” and, eventually, in the emergence of a type of fragrance now commonly known as Eau de Cologne.

Born in 1888 in Northern Poland, the book’s author Ernst Rosenbohm became a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the University of Hamburg after World War II. Except for an entry on the website of the University of Hamburg, little is known about his life. He completed his Ph.D. in chemistry in Erlangen in 1913 and left Germany to work with Israel Lifshitz at the University of Zurich (Switzerland) and Frans Maurits Jaeger at the University of Groningen (Netherlands). Rosenbohm published a number of articles on thermoelectric behaviour of solid substances, especially metals, electrical resistance, magnetism and magnetochemistry. Apart from his PhD dissertation thesis in 1913, the two volumes about Eau de Cologne are his only book-length publication. Kölnisch Wasser is the last text he published before he died. Why would a chemical scientist, I wonder, devote his opus magnum to a history of Eau de Cologne?

My personal copy of Rosenbohm’s Kölnisch Wasser

The first volume is devoted to the history of alchemy but starts off with a long quote from an approbation issued by the medical faculty of the University of Cologne in 1770, which consists of a long list of illnesses that can be treated and healed with the ‘miraculous elixir’ of Eau admirable de Cologne. The report recommends the water for ‘internal and external application’. For internal application, one is advised to mix ‘50,60 or 80 drops’ of the healing water with ‘white wine, fresh well water or cold bouillon.’ For external application, one washes one’s ‘head, vortex, temple, pulse, joints, or sore limbs’ with it. 

Several hundred years before the approbation was published, medieval alchemists took to the ancient Egyptian idea of a substance or stone that may turn metal into gold and provide its owner with eternal youth and immortality. In ancient times, the so-called philosopher’s stone was imagined as a powdery substance (xerion) rather than a stone proper, translated into Arabic as “al iksir.” In Medieval Latin, al-iksir turns into elixir and is increasingly imagined as a liquid substance. Following the Thirty Years’ War, alchemy booms during the seventeenth and eighteenth century across Central Europe and the search for the elixir of life becomes a major preoccupation of medical practitioners, healers, alchemists, pharmacists and druggists, whose division of labour was not yet as clear-cut as it is today.

The act of distillation, Rosenbohm writes, was of particular interest for alchemists, because it separated a seemingly pure, ‘essential’ substance  from a more profane hydrolate treated as waste. In search of the precious elixir of life, imagined as a pure, concentrated and essential substance capable of working miracles, alchemists distilled all kinds of herbal, floral and animal substances. Stories and tales of alchemists and witches, who were in the possession of elixirs that kept them forever young and powerful abounded. Among those, who were said to possess such an elixir was Albertus Magnus, a 13th century scholar who in his days taught at the newly founded University of Cologne.

The Alchemist’s Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), Joseph Wright of Derby

For centuries, techniques of distillation, such as the destillatio per descensum (‘distillation by descent’), which emerged in the Mediterranean in the 3rd and 4th century AD and was commonly practiced by Arab medical scholars, remained rather basic and did not allow for the distillation of pure alcohol. The distillation of a pure and highly concentrated ethanol (‘spirit of wine’) –a prerequisite for the production of Eau de Cologne– was developed around the end of the 11th century, Rosenbohm claims. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the production of concentrated alcohol remained unknown to the wider public and was an esoteric knowledge, practiced but by a small group of ‘adept’ alchemists. In northern Italy, alcohol was commonly termed aqua vitae, the water of life, used for expensive healing substances rather than everyday consumption.

One of the precursors of Eau de Cologne, oleum mirabile (‘wonder oil’), was a mix of rosemary oil and alcohol, which first made its appearance in the work of the well-known physician and adept alchemist Arnaldus de Villa Nova, born in the mid-13th-century in Southern France or Northern Spain. During the 14th century, it was produced in a Florentine monastery  as Acqua de Regina, Queen’s Water, probably due to the fact that the Roman name for its main ingredient, rosemary, was rosmarinus coronaria, crown-rosemary. From around 1672, the healing water was marketed as Hungarian Water, or even more prosaic, under the name of “Water of the Queen of Hungary” (Eau de la Reine de Hongrie, 136ff.) by French producers across Europe. Rosenbohm goes to considerable length to show that the renaming of the earlier rosemary oil and alcohol mix into the evocative “Eau de la Reine de Hongrie” and its promotion as a miraculous healing water was a clever marketing strategy, later to be partially copied by the producers of the Eau de Cologne. In spite of its name, it was produced in France rather than Hungary and its sales story –namely that the Hungarian Queen was cured by a healing water which was given to her by an obscure recluse never to be seen again– drew on earlier stories of kings’ and queens’ magical powers and the esoteric knowledge of eremite alchemists. At the Parisian court and among the European upper class the miraculous Hungarian Water created a frenzy soon to be replaced by the Eaux de Cologne (p. 142ff.). 

Arnaldus de Villa Nova, a Medieval physician and, according to Rosenbohm, alchemist, who produced one of the healing waters that preceded the Eaux de Cologne (here in a medical treatise from 1584; public domain).

Some scholars describe the Hungarian Water as one of the plague waters that were common during the so-called second plague pandemic (cf. Stoddart 1990) –and indeed, one of the many names of the plague, which spread westwards from Eastern and Central Europe during the fifteenth until the seventeenth century was the “Hungarian disease.” However, Rosenbohm contends that while rosemary was commonly used as a fumigant, its distilled oil or water was not commonly used against the plague. Nevertheless, the antibacterial and healing effects of essential oils from thyme, lavender, neroli or rosmarin (still used for some of the original Eaux de Cologne) were well known at the time and within the monasteries and cloisters of Western and Central Europe they were produced and sold as healing substances in the complexes’ pharmacies.

By the sixteenth century, the alchemists’ quest for the philosopher’s stone, which would turn metal into gold and provide eternal youth and immortality, was commonly regarded a hoax. Nevertheless, the art of distillation and the analysis of the composition and effects of essential oils stood at the beginning of what eventually became modern chemistry. This must have been the reason for Rosenbohm to devote his opus magnum to the history of Eau de Cologne. Given the usages of scented and alcohol-based waters against the plague in Medieval and early modern Europe, the contemporary use of Eau de Cologne against the coronavirus in Turkey and elsewhere suddenly appears invested with historical meaning and depth. In any case, Rosenbohm’s book shows the multiple entanglement between aromas, fragrances, spirituality, and the quest for knowledge, cults and healing in Europe in pandemic times.

While today, it would be difficult to publish such a wild mix of historical materials, interspersed with poems, chemical formulas, newspaper articles and grey literature –the flyers that accompanied the early flacons of Eaux de Cologne in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century!–, I cannot help but feel impressed by the scholarly zeal and trans-disciplinary curiosity which makes reading Kölnisch Wasser a veritable experience.


Stoddart, D. Michael 1991. The Scented Ape. The biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenbohm, Ernst 1951. Kölnisch Wasser. Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Kulturgeschichte. Berlin: Albert Nauck & Co.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search