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.

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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.

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