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.

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About mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science and art, specialized in the material culture of eighteenth-century medicine and chemistry. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012, worked at the University of Groningen as a postdoc, and am now based at Utrecht University. I have been awarded fellowships by the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Wood Institute at the College of Physicians, the Chemical Heritage Foundation (both in Philadelphia), and a Wellcome Trust Grant at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Library and Archives. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections and medicine chests to anatomical preparation methods and the production of coloured glass. At Utrecht University I work as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. The project studies how technique was taught and learned in art and science between 1500 and 1950. Although the term ‘technical’ is readily used today, presently a history of the shifting meanings of the term ‘technique’ in arts and science is sorely lacking. My research is aimed at closing this gap in intellectual history, a.o. through the development of an interactive semantic-geographical map of ‘technique’ and related terms.
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One Response to Mercurial drops

  1. Pingback: ‘Mercurialia are worrisome': dangerous recipes | The Recipes Project

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