How Prussian Blue is Poised to Save Your Life
Around 1706, in what is arguably one of the most prolific scientific accidents of all time, a color maker working in a Berlin lab ran out of his normal potash (water-soluble potassium salts commonly used as a base) and borrowed some from the alchemist who ran the lab.
The colorist, a man named Johann Jacob Diesbach, was in the process of concocting a traditional red derived from crushed insects. Meanwhile the alchemist who owned the lab was no mere mortal but a bit of a mad scientist intent on creating an “elixir of life”, so his potash wasn’t your average base. Instead, Dippel, the alchemist, had distilled it using animal blood.
Before embarking on the dark arts, Johann Konrad Dippel, attended university to become a lecturer. However, his outspoken beliefs against the church branded him a heretic and, consequently, a convict. Once remanded from prison, he developed a bent for alchemy, wildly claiming he had discovered the fabled philosopher’s stone which could transform lead into gold. When that didn’t pan out, he turned to the idea of creating a cure-all.
Dippel wrote extensively about animal dissection, allegedly robbing graves and experimenting on cadavers to test his nostrums. Those rumors — along with the fact that he was born in and lived in Frankenstein castle — gave rise to speculation that he inspired Mary Shelley’s famous monster.
Dippel’s “peanut butter” in Diesbach’s “chocolate” had a surprising effect (to borrow from the once famous Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial): instead of creating the red Diesbach expected, the concoction turned a vivid, irrefutable blue, known today as Prussian Blue.
Before this accident and subsequent boon for the art world, the color blue as a pigment had posed quite the conundrum. Not easily found in nature, the elusive color blue couldn’t be readily made from common minerals the way red and yellow could.
Blue is a phantom color. Many of the things we perceive as blue aren’t really blue, but appear that way due to a trick of the eye.
Blue birds, blue butterflies, and blue flowers only seem blue due to a type of light refraction or reflection. The same is true of water and sky. Indigo, a dye made from plants, fades easily and is unstable as a pigment. Without natural objects from which a good blue can be readily derived, artists and colorists have historically turned to science.
Egyptian Blue, used for thousands of years by the ancients, was the first genuinely synthetic color created through a fantastic feat of chemistry. Like so many ancient inventions however (consider the First Century steam engine, for instance), it was lost to the annals of time after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Ultramarine blue, which came to replace Egyptian blue, was derived from the semi-precious Lapus lazuli. Only found in one tiny part of Afghanistan, merchants leveraged its scarcity by charging artists by the drop.
Having no allegiance to the color, Michelangelo famously left a painting unfinished, refusing to pay the premium. On the other hand, the artist Vermeer used the impossibly priced ultramarine liberally in both his undercoats and shadows. His paintings glow like luminescent gems, but he died broke.
So the bright blue hue created by accident on that fateful day was poised to change the art world.
Even more intriguing, and in a strange twist of fate, the new color’s chemical composition was so powerful that it became for some a prescription for murder and, for others, the Philosopher’s Stone Dippel had intended to make all along.
Once Prussian Blue was invented, the colorist Diesbach sought to capitalize on the extraordinary pigment. He partnered with Johann Frisch, who promoted and sold it to great success.
Neither man informed Dippel. Meanwhile, Dippel, fearing his arrest on further heresy charges, fled to the Netherlands. While there he never seemed to show much interest in broadly publicizing the color, though it’s clear, based on two credible sources, that he knew how to do so.
The oldest known painting that uses Prussian Blue was painted in the Netherlands in 1709, presumably from paint acquired there through Dippel.
The Blue Era Begins
Before long, the color seeped its way into Europe and then pinged around the world and back again — from Germany to France and England, and by way of Holland into isolated Japan whose borders were closed to all other European countries. Over a hundred years later, it bounced back to Europe, where it was received as a wholly new and exotic color, thanks almost entirely to Hokusai’s use of it in his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, where it sparked a revolution in art.
Historians posit that without Hokusai’s Great Wave (one of his Thirty-Six Views), which utilizes multiple Prussian Blue shades, Impressionism may have never existed. Hokusai, influenced himself by earlier Dutch prints, tumbles through space and time to inspire another Dutch painter some sixty years later.
When viewed side by side, The Starry Night reads like The Great Wave’s celestial twin. Van Gogh extolled the Great Wave in a letter to his brother, Theo. The compositions, colors and themes between the two are markedly similar.
The archeologist Jules Borély reported seeing Prussian Blue in Cezanne’s mustache, and it was a dominant blue used during Picasso’s Blue Period, solidifying its status as one of the art world’s most influential colors.
Imagine smearing your palette with a genocidal poison, or painting your canvas with a panacea. When you use the color Prussian Blue, you’re essentially doing both. Sometimes when art and science intersect, the results are either Edenic or holocaustic.
In 1782, the Swedish chemist Carl Willhelm Scheele discovered that Prussian Blue, known chemically as ferric ferrocyanide, became a volatile, colorless and odorless poison when mixed with hydrochloric acid.
The resulting poison, hydrogen cyanide (precursor to potassium and sodium cyanide) was the main component in Zyklon B, used by the Nazis to kill at least a million people in history’s deadliest genocide. At Jonestown, Jim Jones forced his followers to consume potassium cyanide, an act that resulted in the mass murder of 900 people, which spawned the unfortunate phrase, “drinking the kool-aid.”
Life from the Ashes
Yet Prussian Blue, in it’s purest form, is more of an aid than a kool-aid. A secret message written with ferric sulfate will be revealed when sprayed with ferrocyanide.
Prussian blue mixed with light-sensitive iron salts will produce a photographic cyanotype first discovered in 1842 by Sir John Hershel. The first photographic book was printed using cyanotypes. The same discovery later leads to the production of architectural blueprints.
Incredibly, Prussian Blue is on the World Health Organization list of essential medicines. It treats radiation contamination that could result through a nuclear accident or via terrorist attack.
Known by the pharmaceutical name, Radiogardase, the bright blue pill approved by the CDC, is being stockpiled by governments in anticipation of bioterrorism. It’s already been used as treatment for Thallium and Cesium poisoning resulting from nuclear accidents in both Japan and Brazil. Ironically, it is only manufactured by one company, located in, of all places, Berlin, Germany, home of the original invention, created three hundred years prior.
Prussian Blue also aids in the detection of some cancers and is currently being researched for its use as a cancer therapy drug. It’s nanoparticles are being explored for their potential use in environmental science and health care. Could its negatively charged ions, already known to have a positive effect on the body, potentially aid somehow in treating viruses like Covid-19? We can only hope this elixir continues to bear fruit. (Negative ions bond and trap bacteria and viruses — so the idea may not be that far fetched.)
The atom was first split in a jury-rigged laboratory under the bleachers at the University of Chicago. The physicists who ran the experiment then didn’t fully understand the dragon whose tail they tickled nor its uncanny association with Prussian Blue.
The intention to understand the fundamental make up of things starts with people being reckless in labs and backyards and under bleachers in an effort to find the latch and open Pandora’s box.
It was only through misguided serendipity that the weird, wicked and heretical Dippel and the colorist who borrowed his potash created an elixir of life. Once the chemistry of Prussian Blue was understood, it became evident that we already had inside our tool chest the hope that we could survive the imps and ills released into the world.
If you remember the story of Pandora, she let evil out, then closed the box. Hope remains inside. If the hope in Pandora’s box is the potential for good, then Prussian Blue is our hope and it might just save your life.