Reading Between the Lines
Mercury, science and medicine have a long, intertwined history, dating back to ancient times.1 Historians believe that Arab physicians were using mercury compounds as long ago as the sixth century BC.2 The first Emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang (born 259 BC), reportedly consumed cinnabar (the vermilion-colored mercury ore) in the vain belief that it would serve as an elixir of immortality.3
Later, in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, Ayurvedic practitioners in India went to elaborate lengths to prepare a “red sulfide of mercury,” purifying the element and combining it with herbs to treat a variety of ailments.4 This ongoing branch of Ayurvedic “medical alchemy” (known as Rasa Shastra)5 is guided by the belief that “nothing is good for everybody and everything is good for somebody.”6 Other reported applications of mercury in early India and China included its use as an aphrodisiac and contraceptive.7
Although ancient civilizations appear to have been fascinated with mercury as a medicinal, alchemical, ceremonial and coloring agent, awareness of mercury’s toxicity also arose early on. Thus, the Romans used prisoners, slaves and other “undesirables” to mine mercury,8 not caring that the miners “would soon die a crazed and anguished death.”9 Animal experiments on mercury toxicity began in the ninth century, and Avicenna, in the eleventh century, suggested that it would be wise to limit mercury to topical uses.1 Cautions about mercury toxicity also cropped up in fairy tales. In the nineteenth-century Irish folk tale The Pudding Bewitched, a fairy-man puts “half a pound of quicksilver” into a pudding, prompting a “dancing mania” in everyone who eats the pudding.10
CHARLATANS AND QUACKS
Throughout the ages, there have always been some discerning individuals who have viewed the medicinal use of mercury as the hallmark of unscrupulous healers. Christian descriptions of Jesus “the Good Physician” contrast with discussions of the bad physicians of his time who “traded on complex, intellectually prestigious, costly and dangerous treatments to amass great wealth for themselves.”11
Jesus’s approximate contemporary, Pliny the Elder, chastised greedy physicians for profiting from ineffective mercury-containing “ointment cures.”11 Unfortunately, as one mercury historian points out, the use of such a powerful substance often dazzled patients, and “when poisoning symptoms appeared, they could always be blamed on worsening of the original disease.”12
In the 1700s, self-promoting itinerant surgeon John Taylor, described as a “charlatan” by some of his contemporaries and a flamboyant “poster child for 18th century quackery” by modern observers, performed eye surgeries on both Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).13 Both musicians died from ostensible strokes some time after undergoing their eye operations. Historians have pointed out that Taylor used copious amounts of mercury as an antiseptic during the operations and administered postoperative laxatives that likely also contained mercury.13 Mercury since has been shown to have serious vascular effects and to play a role in stroke.15
In the nineteenth century, German physician Adolf Kussmaul traced the word “quack” to the Dutch word quacksalver used to describe individuals hawking topical mercury (“quicksilver”) products.12 Meanwhile, on the American continent, the use in the 1800s of mercury “as a universal medicine for almost any disease made large parts of the [U.S.] population turn their backs on established medicine.”12
SIXTEENTH-CENTURY ROOTS OF MODERN TOXICOLOGY
As the ongoing controversy over the mercury-containing vaccine preservative thimerosal illustrates, modern toxicology hinges on the notion that well-documented toxins such as mercury can be safe in small or “trace” amounts.16 The origins of this perspective date back to the German-Swiss physician and alchemist who chose to go by the name of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals in medicine and set the stage for the field of toxicology.17,18 His influential idea that “lower doses—below a threshold—could cause otherwise poisonous substances to become harmless” went on to become encapsulated in the simplistic slogan “the dose makes the poison.”18 Thus, in Paracelsus’s view, inorganic mercury compounds could be therapeutic if administered in “proper” doses.18 According to some medical historians, mercury also held a special significance for Paracelsians as an element with “magical and astrological qualities.”19
In the present day, toxicologists try to determine, for a given substance, the highest tested dose or concentration of a substance at which there is no observed adverse effect.18 This is called the NOAEL (no-observed-adverse-effect level). However, it is not uncommon for studies to document adverse effects at exposure levels far beneath the NOAEL.20 Political and other factors also can bias the selection of a NOAEL.21
Back in the sixteenth century, Paracelsus recognized that factors such as the timing of exposure to a substance also “make the poison,” but he was unaware of many toxicological subtleties that have become more apparent in modern times. These include the possibility of “pervasive adverse effects on [fetal] development at dose levels that [spare] the mother” as well as the phenomenon of hyper-susceptibility and the simple fact that, where toxins are concerned, uncertainty is “ever-present.”18 Issues such as timing and age of exposure, individual susceptibility and nonlinear dose responses are highly relevant to discussions of mercury toxicity.22
THE SCOURGE OF SYPHILIS
From the earliest days of its use in medicine, mercury featured prominently in the treatment of venereal diseases as well as other topical nuisances.1 For example, when modern scientists carried out microscopic analysis of hair samples (head and pubic) from the preserved mummy of the short-lived Ferdinand II of Aragon (1467-1496), eldest son of Alfonso II of Naples, they found an extremely high mercury content as well as insect fragments that made it possible to deduce that the king had received mercury treatments for a dual infestation of lice.23
Syphilis appeared on the European stage at around the same time, and it rapidly attained epidemic proportions (possibly arriving from the New World with Columbus when he returned to Spain).24 Given mercury’s already accepted uses, it seemed “quite natural” to introduce mercury for syphilis treatment in the form of “pills, suppositories, inhalations, fumigations, ointments, sachets and injections.”25 In fact, Paracelsus was one of the earliest proponents of mercury therapy for syphilis.19
Dan Olmsted’s and Mark Blaxill’s eminently readable book, The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic,24 traces some of the fascinating history of what doctors at the time called the “French disease,” observing that in its early years in Europe, syphilis was particularly virulent. They also note that the mercury treatments put into use immediately began wreaking havoc. In some instances, when the syphilitics who were subjected to these interventions exhibited classic signs of mercury poisoning (such as excessive salivation), this was “misinterpreted as a positive therapeutic sign of response to treatment by the elimination of harmful humours.”19,25 In other situations, less credulous citizens noticed that “the cure frequently proved worse than the disease”; in fact, after administering mercury to hundreds of patients in 1495, the Italian Giacomo Carpi “had to leave town in a hurry” because he was at risk of being murdered by angry townspeople.24 “Antimercurialists” of the era also began producing written accounts of mercury poisoning, describing symptoms such as “stomatitis, dental loss, gastroenteritis, salivation, ‘Hatters Shakes,’ oliguria and pneumonitis.”19
The debate about mercury’s therapeutic value became even more pronounced in the eighteenth century, with keen observers continuing to point out the lack of efficacy and “painful and fatal complications” of mercury-based syphilis remedies.25 However, when Hapsburg empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780) brought physician Gerard van Swieten to prominence to address the rampant syphilis affecting Vienna’s military, van Swieten (and later, his son) developed and promoted a liquid form of mercuric chloride that rapidly became the standard of care for syphilis treatment throughout Europe.24 Olmsted and Blaxill speculate that this concoction, which came to be known as “Van Swieten’s liquor,” may have been widely overprescribed due to people’s fears of syphilis, and this overuse probably resulted in substantial, unrecognized mercury poisoning.
Mercury stubbornly remained the “first-line” treatment for syphilis through the nineteenth century.25 One of the most intriguing chapters in The Age of Autism delves into a little-discussed aspect of Sigmund Freud’s work with female patients diagnosed with “hysteria” and other forms of “obsessional neurosis.” Freud himself noted that “in more than half of the severe cases of hysteria…the patient’s father suffered from syphilis.” Olmsted and Blaxill describe Freud’s patient Dora, who began displaying mental and physical symptoms of “hysteria” (which dovetailed with symptoms of mercury poisoning) at the exact same age that she nursed her father through syphilis treatments that probably contained mercury. According to the two authors, “once you begin looking, clues to possible mercury toxicity are everywhere in Freud’s cases.” Olmsted and Blaxill suggest that the leading thinkers of the time, including Freud, “overlooked or ignored” obvious signs of mercury poisoning because they could not conceive of the possibility that female caregivers might suffer indirect toxic effects through administration of mercury treatments to relatives with syphilis.
Although new therapies for syphilis began emerging in the 1880s, including bismuth, synthetic arsenicals and, ultimately, penicillin, mercury remained in sporadic use as a syphilis treatment until the 1950s.19 Over the same time period, leading researchers in Oslo (Norway) and Tuskegee (Alabama) conducted a different type of unethical experiment by withholding treatment from syphilis patients to observe the disease’s natural history—but that is another story.26,27
THE SKIN AS GATEWAY
As already mentioned, mercury has a centuries-old history of topical uses. In the first half of the twentieth century, an epidemic of “pink disease” (infantile acrodynia) swept across North America, Central Europe and Australia.28 Symptoms were wide-ranging and often fatal (10 to 33 percent of cases),28 and autopsies showed widespread destruction of the brain.12 It was not until the late 1940s that researchers traced the alarming condition primarily to teething powders that contained calomel (mercurous chloride).28 This discovery should have taken place far sooner, especially given that research in the 1930s confirmed that the oral mucosa readily absorb mercury.12 Even with this discovery, acrodynia cases continued to account for almost 4 percent of all children’s hospital visits in one British city as late as 1953.12
Beginning in the late 1940s, scientists and clinicians suspected that multiple sclerosis might be an “adult form of acrodynia,” and by the 1960s, neurologists began to believe that mercury-containing amalgam fillings could be the source of the exposure.12 Two of the most influential medical trade organizations in the U.S.—the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association—reportedly were born to serve as de facto lobbying entities on behalf of mercury, defending calomel (and later thimerosal) as well as amalgam. (Other articles in this issue of Wise Traditions discuss thimerosal and dental amalgam.)
Although the outcry over acrodynia prompted the removal of calomel from teething powders in the mid-1950s, many other medical and cosmetic products, both then and now, also contained or continue to include mercury, sometimes in defiance of regulatory standards. In the current era, skin-lightening creams are in vogue worldwide and are a widespread source of hidden exposure to mercury.29 Unfortunately, many of the users of these products are women of reproductive age or pregnant women who unknowingly are exposing their children (born and unborn) to toxic levels of topical mercury and mercury vapor.30
IMMORAL AND CRIMINAL
Over and over again throughout documented medical history, healers of all stripes have turned a blind eye to mercury’s dangers. David Kirby (author of Evidence of Harm)31 describes “the ignorance and arrogance of medical professionals, who have insisted over the years that mercurials in medicine could treat or prevent the onset of horrible, disfiguring diseases, while utterly ignoring or dismissing the evidence that their ‘medicine’ was often doing more harm than the diseases it was designed to fight.”9 Kirby adds that “this blind belief in a known poison was misguided, immoral, and in some cases, patently criminal.” Journalist Jon Rappoport describes it as a “tactic of tyrants” to say, “Take this poison—it is life-affirming and life-giving.”32 (In response, he suggests shining a light on “liars and fakers.”)
It is a shame that medical practitioners apparently have such short memories where mercury is concerned, and that mercury poisoning has to be “repeatedly rediscovered” with each new generation.12 Fortunately, there has always been a more ethical and critical-thinking minority willing to speak out against the “immoral” and “criminal” pro-mercury contingent. For example, tens of thousands of Americans have signed petitions requesting that Congress subpoena Dr. William Thompson, the whistleblower who has described extensive scientific fraud at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency’s corrupt actions include claiming that there are no studies linking thimerosal to autism or other developmental disorders, when in fact CDC possesses data showing just the opposite.33
The Minimata Convention on Mercury, adopted by over one hundred and forty countries in 2013, represents one positive step toward eliminating man-made sources of mercury poisoning.34 Those who understand that mercury has no place in the medical toolkit must continue to reject—as loudly as possible—the Mad Hatter science that has enabled mercury’s ongoing partnership with medicine.
THE MISERY OF MERCURY POISONING
In an essay on “A hundred and fifty years of misuse of mercury and dental amalgam—still a lesson to learn,” Mats Hanson discusses the case of Alfred Stock (1876-1946), a well-known German professor of inorganic chemistry who conducted experiments with mercury and other substances.12
After becoming seriously mercury-poisoned, Stock wrote roughly fifty papers about mercury and tried to warn scientists and dentists about mercury’s risks. Stock described his experience with mercury poisoning as utterly miserable—physically, intellectually and emotionally:
Intellectual exhaustion and depression, lack of energy and ability for work, especially intellectual work, increased need for sleep. . . most severe for a person with intellectual work was the loss of memory. . . . Especially the ability to calculate, to do mathematical thinking, also to play chess, was severely affected. The depressed ability to remember and the difficulties in calculating seem to be a special sign of insidious mercury vapor poisoning. The intellectual capacity was also in other ways depressed although not as severely as memory.
In addition there was psychic depression, a painful inner unrest, with time also causing disturbed sleep. By nature fond of company and full of enjoyment of life, I withdrew in misery into myself, avoided public relations, people and social contacts, lost the love for art and nature. Humor rusted in. Difficulties which I earlier had managed with ease (and today again can manage with ease) appeared insurmountable.
The scientific work required considerable efforts. I forced myself into my laboratory but could not produce anything of value despite all efforts. My thoughts were heavy and pedantic. I had to give up participating in matters which were not of immediate importance. The lectures, previously something I liked, became tormenting. The preparation of a lecture, the writing of a paper, even a simple letter, required immense efforts in handling the contents and language. Not seldom it happened that I wrote words wrongly or forgot letters. To be aware of these shortcomings, not to know their cause, to know no way of getting rid of them, to expect further deterioration—that was not nice!
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This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2018.🖨️ Print post