We are indebted to the Arabs for the beginnings of the science of chemistry, starting perhaps in the seventh century.
Their knowledge was extremely limited, however, and was based on the theory that all the metals are composed of mercury and sulphur in different proportions.
It was this theory that found its way into Europe, through Spain, and which, under the name of alchemy, flourished through the Middle Ages and until the sixteenth century. Gold was the pursuit of all the alchemists.
It was the one perfect metal, they held, all others being inferior. But since gold itself was basically composed of the same elements as the lesser metals, there must be something, they argued, many times more perfect than gold which entered into its composition.
Therefore, this unknown substance was the chief object of their search. If found, they believed, it could be mixed with any of the other metals in proper proportion, drive out their imperfections and turn them into gold.
This mysterious substance was named by the Arabs, el iksir, or elixir by the alchemists of Europe. Its Arabic meaning was “the philosopher’s stone,” because the olden alchemists regarded themselves as philosophers.
Some of the later alchemists believed that this undiscovered substance might be a liquid or a powder and, when found, that it would also have the property of prolonging life.
This accounts for the present use of elixir in denoting a medicinal preparation.