The mysteries of mercury

The medicine chest was closed for a week as some moving countries and organising a PhD defence had to be done, but now a new project has been started and it offers endless opportunities for new, fascinating blogs!

As we have seen before, mercury was a hughely popular substance in nineteenth- century drugs, but that popularity already had a long history. In traditional alchemy, mercury was a very important element. Together with sulphur, it was thought to be the origin of all metals, and that through the right processes of distillation and purification of these two, the alchemist would eventually be able to create (philosophical) gold. In line with this, mercury was thought to be a live-giving substance with strong penetrating qualities and thus a useful medicine in ailments that required a thorough purge of the body.

A Chinese emperor even had his tomb filled with rivers of mercury als he thought they might help him find eternal life – ironically, he probably died from taking mercury pills. However, by the seventeenth century it was known that mercury had a dangerous side, and this dual character, together with mercury’s mysterious shimmer and its volatile nature, made it all the more fascinating. Mercury was everywhere until the twentieth century, both in popular and academic chemistry and medicine, as also shows from a late seventeenth-century Dutch book of plates on the crafts, Jan Luyken’s Het Menselijk Bedrijf (‘Man’s activities’) of 1694. In it, a plate is found of a ‘scheider,’ literally a seperator, an alchemist of chemist.


With the plate comes a poem: “Ik schei de kwik in twee geslachten; in goede en een kwade, om zich te wachten. In zoet, en in verterend vuur, en dwing haar vluchtige natuur.” This translates as “I seperate mercury in two genders; in good and bad, to make it wait. In sweet, and in digesting fire, and force her volatile nature.” This suggests that it was popular believe that the two characteristics of mercury, the good and the bad, the live-giving and the killing, could be seperated through destillation – and that the remaining residue, that was forced to ‘wait’ was the good part that could be used in medicine.

That mercury was used as a cure-all by virtually anyone who could afford it, is also nicely illustrated by the mummie of Ferdinand II (1467-1496), king of Napels, aka Little Ferdinand. His hair contained the remains of head lice, as well as high concentration of mercury – Ferdinand used it as lice shampoo. In my new research project, I will try to find out exactly how mercury was thought to influence the human body in early eighteenth-century Dutch popular alchemy and academic chemistry, and in these two fields really differed in their ideas.

Medicine chest or kitchen cabinet?

Over the past weeks, some nasty and exotic substances from nineteenth-century medicine chests have been presented. Today however, I am going to focus on some substances that are commonly found in nineteenth-century medicine chests, but that are also still in most kitchens today.

“Spirit of Hartshorn” for example, sounds very mysterious, but is in fact nothing more than an ammonia solution. The Romans called the ammonium chloride deposits they collected in ancient Libya ‘sal ammoniacus’ (salt of Amun) because of proximity to the nearby temple of Amun or Ammon. Before the mid-nineteenth century, this compound of nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3) was usually made from horn shavings, hence the name ‘spirit of hartshorn.’ We now keep its chemically manufactured equivalent in our cleaning cupboards. In medicine chests the substance can be found under various names, such as Liq. Ammon Fort., and it was used to treat stings and insect bites, as it reduces pain an irritation of the skin.

You’d be surprised what you can do with spices…


Other substances that are very common in nineteenth-century medicine chests are all kinds of spices and plant extracts, such as ground ginger, rhubarb powder, and clove oil. Most of these were introduced in Europe in the sixteenth century, when explorers and traders brought them back from newly discovered regions. Rhubarb however was indigenous, although in the nineteenth century medical handbooks sometimes distinguished between various geographical origins, i.e. Turkish and European rhubarb. Savory, a chemist, stated that rhubarb was “…an excellent remedy in case of flatulent affection of the bowels attended with griping pains, and in diarrhoea free from inflammation; but it should not be indiscriminately administered in every case of pain in the bowels, on account of the stimulating nature of the spirit with which it is prepared.” [1]

Ginger, either dried and powdered or in the form of an essence, was advised in all kinds of ailments, but particularly in cholic and gout. It was thought to be warming, and with a more lasting effect than other spices.[2] Rhubarb and ginger were also often combined, most famously in Gregory’s Powder. This mixture of rhubarb, ginger and magnesium carbonate was one of the most common self-prescription medicines for over a hundred and fifty years after it had been developed by James Gregory (1752-1821), a professor of physic in Edinburgh.[3]

In the Dublin Literary Gazette in 1830, we find an advertisement for  “DR. GREGORY’S STOMACHIC POWDER of Rhubarb, Ginger, and Calcined Magnesia, for Indigestion, Flatulence, Acidity, &e.”

Clove oil may not be in your spice rack, but cloves, whole or powdered, probably are – and even today sucking on a clove may alleviate a toothache, albeit temporarily. Clove oil can also still be purchased in pharmacies without a prescription. This is because the active ingredient, eugenol, is a natural analgaesic and antiseptic. For that reason, clove oil is found in so many medicine chests from the nineteenth century, especially in chests that were assembled for travellers. They could easily find themselves many days away from a dentist, and then clove oil was their first resort. All this shows that while many nineteenth-century drugs were ineffective or even harmful, some were innocent and even quite useful.


[1] Savory, A companion to the medicine chest, 1836, p. 92

[2] Bond’s Companion to the Medicine Chest, ca. 1862 p. 25

Quinine in the Arctic

Quinine – most of us have heard of it and associate it with the treatment of malaria. Recently a certain manufacturer of soft drinks even mentioned it again in a sort of mock-colonial advert for tonic water. Although tonic water was indeed originally mixed as an anti-malaria treatment in tropical regions, what the ad does not mention is that our tonic water contains less than 20 milligrams of quinine per 1.5 decilitre, whereas the recommended quinine dosage for treatment of malaria is two or three 200-350 milligram tablets three times a day.[1]

In several of the medicine chests at the National Maritime Museum, preparations of quinine are also found, including quinine disulphate in a chest that was used by the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic (1845).[2] Searching for a North-western passage to Asia, all 128 men died after their boats got stuck in the ice in the Canadian Arctic.[3] Seen through twenty-first century eyes, it may seem very odd to take anti-malaria drugs on an Arctic expedition. Upon closer investigation, it is not as strange as it seems.

A nineteenth-century bottle of a quinine preparations, like the one in the chest of the Franklin expedition.

Quinine, an alkaloid made of the bitter red bark of the cinchona tree, was ‘discovered’ in Peru in 1631. It was no chance discovery – the Quechua already knew it, but malaria was not indigenous to the new world. In fact, the discovery of the usefulness of quinine in malaria by a Jesuit apothecary was the result of  a search commanded by Pope Urban VIII, after ten cardinals and hundreds of their attendants who came to Rome to elect a new pope died in the Roman marshes in 1623 from ‘bad air’ or, in Italian, mal’aria.[4]

Unlike what many people think nowadays, malaria is not unique to tropical regions. Until the early twentieth century, it was indigenous to much of Europe. Epidemics regularly occurred in regions as northern as Denmark and even Finland.[5] Moreover, the malaria parasite was not discovered until 1880 by the French army surgeon Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (who received a Nobel prize for his discovery in 1907).[6] So until 1880, malaria was literally mal’aria: a disease characterized by intermittent fevers, thought to be caused by ‘bad air.’

Obviously, this ‘bad air’ could occur anywhere, so it made perfect sense to the men on Franklin’s expedition to take it with them on their Arctic explorations. There is a fair chance they too mixed it with other beverages though, as the quinine disulphate they brought with them tasted so bitter that it induced vomiting before it could have any therapeutic effect…

Image source:

[2] Catalogue numbers AAA2224.18, TOA0131.4

[3] John Geiger and Owen Beattie, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2004

[4] Fiammetta Rocco, The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria, Medicine and the Cure that Changed the World. HarperCollins 2010

[5] Reiter, Paul. “Global warming and malaria: knowing the horse before hitching the cart”. Malaria Journal 7 (2008): suppl. 1.

Hidden opiates and mercury

About two weeks ago, I had coffee with the head of the conservation department of the National Maritime Museum. She asked me if I could mark the bottles and containers from the medicine chests in the database that had potentially hazardous substances in them. As I compiled a list of all the substances and their contemporary uses for my research project anyway, I promised her to do so.

Obviously, many of the substances in the chest can be hazardous if you would swallow an entire bottle at once, but the conservation department is particularly interested in substances that are either a health risk if not properly stored, such as mercury, and substances that are subject to legal regulations, such as opiates. Even if the opium is over a century old, you still need a license to keep it! And as a matter of fact, there are quite some hidden opiates and mercury in the medicine chests.

Some of them are quite easy to recognise, because their label reads something like ‘Hydr.’ (hydrargyrum; mercury), or ‘compound powder of chalk with opium’, and anyone who has ever read a Victorian novel will know laudanum should not be spoon-fed to infants – although one can imagine it would make them very calm. However, others are less straightforward. Grey powder, blue pills, Dover’s powder, paregoric elixir, and calomel or calamel all contain mercury or opium.

Dover’s powder for example, was a traditional medicine against cold and fever developed by Thomas Dover (1660–1742), aka Doctor Quicksilver. Its’ recipe i  Encyclopaedia Britannica: Or a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and Miscellaneous Litterature of 1810 says:

“Sudorific, or Dover’s powder. E. Take of vitriolated tartar, three drams; opium, root of ipecacuanha powdered, of each one scruple. Mix, and grind them accurately together, so as to make an uniform powder.”

A late nineteenth century bottle of Dover’s Powder – advertised as fever medicine.

But Dover was certainly not the only or the last physician to subscribe mercury-based drugs to his patients. Medication with mercury as the active ingredient was used in the treatment of venereal and skin diseases up to the early twentieth century, and in the nineteenth century they could be found in both traveller’s and family medicine chests in abundance. Turnbull in his 1806 book The Naval Surgeon writes that John Clark  in 1773 was the first to use calomel (mercury chloride) in dysentery in ‘hot countries’.

John Savory, in his 1836 A Companion to the Medicine Chest wrote of calomel: “This mercurial preparation is more extensively and more usefully employed than almost any other article of the Materia Medica. But its principal use is as a purge, conjoined with other aperients; and for this purpose it is administered in doses of from three to six grains, combined with, or followed by, cathartic extract, rhubarb, senna, or other laxatives. (…) In affections of the liver, in various glandular diseases, and in some cutaneous eruptions, calomel is celebrated as an alternative; and, combined with diuretics, it singularly contributes to their activity. (…)..,and in croup no remedy proves so decidedly useful as calomel, in these combinations, administered after bleeding and purging.(…)”

These prescriptions make you wonder to what extent mercury poisoning influenced nineteenth-century society, as it acts as a neurotoxin in the human body, and interferes with the brain and nervous system. In children, it may affect development and cause learning disabilities; in adults it can affect fertility and memory, cause tremors, loss of vision and in severe cases lead to death…

For more on Thomas Dover and quicksilver doctors, see Swiderski, Richard M. Quicksilver : A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.