Mercurial drops

As mentioned in previous posts, I am working on a project on mercury in eighteenth-century chemistry and medicine. Over the past few weeks, I have been researching the use of mercury as a drug in eighteenth-century Britain and the Netherlands, and I found some fascinating yet disturbing stories.

In the early eighteenth century, England was the scene of what would go down in history as the ‘Quicksilver Controversy.’ For centuries, mercury and mercury preparations had been used to cure all kinds of intestinal blockages and venereal disease. However, most physicians were well aware of the potential dangers of mercury, and prescribed it only if all else failed. Not Thomas Dover (1662-1742), alias the Quicksilver Doctor. Unlike his contemporaries, he believed crude mercury to be a cure-all for all kinds of blockages. Although he was vehemently opposed by many of his colleagues, there were enough people desperate enough to try his ‘cure.’

To which this could lead was shown in the case of Barton Booth (1681-1733), one of the most famous tragedy actors of his time.

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery D757.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery D757.

From 1727, Booth was afflicted by ill health: it began with a fever lasting forty-six days, followed by returning bouts of jaundice. Desperate for a cure, Booth eventually called for Thomas Dover, who prescribed him quicksilver. Within a week, Booth ingested almost two pounds of mercury, and died. When a post-mortem examination was carried out, it was found that Booth’s intestines had turned black and were lined with crude mercury, spreading ‘a most offensive cadaverous stench.’[1]

There are no accounts of other quicksilver doctors as extreme in their views as Thomas Dover,  but popular eighteenth-century literature suggests that the Netherlands too saw quicksilver doctors. In a comedy from 1727 which has been ascribed to the Amsterdam hack writer Gysbert Tyssens (1693-1732), a ‘graduate cobbler,’ Doctor Hans, is ridiculed because he prescribes his patients mercury:

They are very good, ensuring that the sick never have to fear disease again.

Because he will cure them fast with a lethal quicksilver;

And the deceased cannot tell what was the cause of their death;

And in this way Mercury cures all illnesses.[2]

Although most physicians were extremely careful when prescribing mercury, there were clearly also men who were more interested in their own finances than in their patients’ health. Some even used their care for their patients as a pretext; a flimsy cover-up for highly profitable schemes. In the late 1750s, a small pamphlet on a new drug against venereal disease, ‘Helvetische essentie of mercuriale droppels’ (Swiss essence or mercurial drops) was printed in Dutch.

Last page of the pamphlet on the 'Helvetian essence', listing exclusive selling points.
Last page of the pamphlet on the ‘Helvetian essence’, listing exclusive selling points.

The Dutch translator Ponty, a medical doctor from Rotterdam, states in his introduction that the exact contents of the Helvetian Essence is not revealed in the pamphlet to protect patients from quacks who try to reproduce it. However, the last page suggests an entirely different reason for this secrecy: a two-ounce bottle of this miracle cure sold for 12 Dutch guilders – an amount that would equal over 100 Euros today.[3] The only selling point in the United Provinces? Ponty, the translator.[4]


[1] Kevin Dewhurst, The Quicksilver Doctor. The life and times of Thomas Dover, physician and adventurer. Bristol: John Wright & Sons Ltd, 1957, pp. 153-6, Richard M. Swiderski, Quicksilver. A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2007, pp.11-24.

[2] “Zy zyn heel goed om te maken dat een zieke nooit geen ziekte meer hoeft te vrezen. Want op een rys zal hy ze door een dood’lyk kwik altoos genezen; En de overledenen kunnen niet zeggen wat de oorzaak van hun dood is geweest; En ‘t is op die wyze dat de Mercurius alle ziektens geneest.” from: Thijsens, Gijsbert. Doctor Hans gepromoveert tot de narrekap van Esculapius, op het uilebord van Mercurius. Blyspel., 1727, p. 3. (Translation mine.)

[4] Langhans, Daniel. Gebruik van de Helvetische essentie of mercuriale droppels : tegens de venus kwalen en andere ziektens door de verdikking der ziltagtige vogten veroorzaakt. Vertaald door A. Ponty. Dordrecht: A. Blusse, 175X.

Making medicine: early modern laboratory equipment

As regular readers know, I have a weakness for the material culture of early modern science and medicine. There are scores of brilliant museums full of the stuff, but there is a downside: the most common, most intensively used objects tend not to be in museum collections. That makes sense of course: their common and utilitarian character meant they were discarded when broken, damaged, or no longer in use. Most of the spaces in which these objects were used are long gone too: they were continuously modernized, or given a new destination and transformed beyond recognition. Unfortunately, that means that in some instances, such as that of the early modern laboratory, hardly anything of a material culture remains. There are some rare exceptions, and an exciting project based at UCL studies the archaeological remains of early modern laboratories.

However, my current research focuses on the Low Countries, and as far as I know, no laboratory has been dug up here so far. What remains are individual flasks, bottles, jars and retorts. Fortunately, the (ideal) lay-out of early modern chemical laboratories and their inventories in the Netherlands have been mapped in print to some extent. Take for example Steven Blankaart’s 1678 De nieuwe hedendaagsche stof-scheiding ofthe chymia (The new contemporary separation of substances or chymia).

From: Steven Blankaart,  De nieuwe hedendaagsche stof-scheiding ofthe chymia (1678)
From: Steven Blankaart, De nieuwe hedendaagsche stof-scheiding ofthe chymia (1678)

Blankaart, an Amsterdam physician and natural philosopher who had started his career as an apothecaries’ apprentice, published this book based on a variety of authors and his own experiences, to advocate chemical experimentation. In it, we find not only detailed descriptions of the properties and processing of all kinds of substances, but also four plates depicting a range of laboratory equipment. Blankaart’s book, written in Dutch, was aimed primarily at professional artisans such as apothecaries, assayers, and artists who made their own pigments. This was a flourishing trade in the early modern period, as also appears from the program of this fascinating conference, which I unfortunately will not be able to attend.

By the late seventeenth century, chemistry was also slowly becoming an academic discipline. In 1669, a chemical laboratory was created at Leiden University. There are no maps or depictions of this laboratory, but it probably looked quite similar to the laboratory installed at Utrecht University in 1695.

First chemical laboratory at Utrecht University, founded 1695. From: J.C. Barchusen, Pyrosophia (Leiden, 1698).
First chemical laboratory at Utrecht University, founded 1695. From: J.C. Barchusen, Pyrosophia (Leiden, 1698).

That the laboratory in Leiden was used intensively shows from the report written by the newly appointed professor of chemistry Herman Boerhaave in 1718. He proposed to renew the ovens, as almost half a century of intense use had made them unfit, and the curators happily agreed.[1] The lists Boerhaave provided of equipment that had been ‘inherited’ from the previous chemistry professor and of equipment and supplies that had to be purchased give a good idea about the inventory of the laboratory circa 1718: iron rings, hooks, spoons, spatulas, and pliers, copper kettles, bowls and buckets, bellows, a variety of glass flasks and bottles, six brickwork ovens, wood, coal and peat, and a well-instructed laboratory assistant.[2]

To be continued!


[1] ” Vernieuwingh van de ovens, die in het Laboratorium door lang gebruyck onbekquaem sijn geworden.” From Boerhaave’s report to the Curators of the University, August 1718, in Molhuysen 1913, vol. 4, p. 150*.

[2] Ibidem, p. 150*-2*. Although the latter admittedly is not exactly an object, Latour would argue they are all actors, so why not list him as well.