Photo: Fountain of Youth illustration

This painting by Austrian artist Eduard Veith shows a scene at the mythical Fountain of Youth. Throughout history, people have sought magical ways to restore their youth.

Photograph by Fine Art Photographic Library/CORBIS

By Willie Drye

During his twilight years, American author Mark Twain noted that "life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18."

Twain's quip was only one of many complaints about aging that have been recorded for as long as humans have dreaded the downside of a long life. The ancient Greek poet Homer called old age "loathsome," and William Shakespeare termed it "hideous winter."

So it's not hard to understand why there have always been hopes and rumors that something soon to be discovered—magic waters, say, or maybe stem cell research—will do away with old age.

Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world before he died around 323 B.C., may have been looking for a river that healed the ravages of age. During the 12th century A.D., a king known to Europeans as Prester John supposedly ruled a land that had a river of gold and a fountain of youth.

But the name linked most closely to the search for a fountain of youth is 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who allegedly thought it would be found in Florida. In St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S., there's a tourist attraction dating back a century that purports—albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way—to be the fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon discovered soon after he arrived in what is now Florida in 1513.

There are a couple of problems with labeling St. Augustine's natural spring as Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth, however. Elderly visitors who drink the spring's sulfur-smelling water don't turn into teenagers. And Ponce de Leon probably wasn't looking for such a fountain and may not have set foot near present-day St. Augustine. Many historians now think he came ashore about 140 miles (225 kilometers) farther south near present-day Melbourne.

The Thrill of the Chase?

But the tale of the search for a fountain of youth is so appealing that it survives anyway, says Ryan K. Smith, a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

"People are more intrigued by the story of looking and not finding than they are by the idea that the fountain might be out there somewhere," Smith says.

No original documents survive from Ponce de Leon's Florida expedition. Spanish historians writing long after he died in 1521 may have created the story that he was seeking the fountain to make fun of him because he was an old man who wanted to restore his sexual vigor, Smith says.

Still, a few grains of truth have helped sustain the story. Kathleen Deagan, a professor of archaeology at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a National Geographic Society grantee, says a cemetery and the remains of a Spanish mission dating back to St. Augustine's founding in 1565 have been discovered near the so-called fountain of youth.

"It's always been interesting and ironic that the site is, in fact, one of the most important historical sites in Florida," Deagan says.

Michelle Reyna, a spokesperson for the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, says the fountain has been a tourist attraction since at least 1901 and may have been attracting visitors since 1860.

Related Features

  • Photo: Tutankhamun's funeral mask

    Hidden Treasures Quiz

    Test your knowledge of ancient treasures and relics.

  • Photo: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

    The Legend

    No other queen of the ancient world—not Hatshepsut or Nefertiti, not Helen of Troy or Boudicca of the Celts—carries with her the intrigue of Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra VII.

  • saxon-gold-ukchan.jpg

    "Lost Gold"

    How did an amateur metal-detecting enthusiast discover an ancient gold hoard valued at over $5 million?

  • Photo: Nasca skull in the desert

    Nasca: Behind the Lines

    After a century of speculation, scientists believe they now understand the ancient culture and why people created the sprawling figures etched into the Peruvian desert.

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Explore Nat Geo

  • Paul-Salopek-Ethiopia-Walk3-990x659.jpg

    Out of Eden Walk

    Where will Paul Salopek walk on his seven-year adventure? Find out as he updates us from the field.

  • hub_tease2.jpg

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

Archaeology Games

Play More Games »

Archaeology Photography

National Geographic Magazine

  • Photo: Ruins of Timgad, the most intact of Roman cities in Algeria.

    Roman Frontiers Pictures

    Rome’s border walls were the beginning of its end.

  • Photo: Easter Island at night

    Easter Island Pictures

    How did the Easter Island statues move? That question puzzles archaeologists—and modern-day islanders.

  • Photo: Terra-Cotta warrior painted buff

    Terra-Cotta Army Pictures

    Archaeologists and artists, armed with the latest tools and techniques, are bringing the life-size army of painted clay soldiers back to life.

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Photo: Aerial view of a city at night

    The Great Energy Challenge

    The National Geographic initiative is a call to action to become actively involved, to learn more and do more—to change how we think about and consume energy so that we can all help tackle the big energy questions.

Shop now »