Mercury and lead in bones: an outing to bioarcheology

Keeping a blog has many benefits, and one of them is the fact that you can share your research with people from around the world. Occasionally, this means an academic colleague from a field quite different to my own gets in touch, because they have read something on my blog that is relevant to them. It’s really exciting when that happens, because it broadens both our horizons. So you can imagine I was happy to receive an email from bioarcheologist Dr Tamara Varney last spring.

Dr Varney is the PI on a project that looks at toxic trace elements, especially lead, in colonial populations, analysing human bone from colonial cemeteries. She recently excavated the site of a Royal Naval Hospital in Antigua, and found that the bones of one individual contained low lead levels, but very high mercury levels.

Antigua is a Caribbean island. The graveyard of the Royal Naval Hospital is near the historical site of Nelson's Dockyard, in the south-east of the island.

Antigua is a Caribbean island. The graveyard of the Royal Naval Hospital is near the historical site of Nelson’s Dockyard, in the south-east of the island.

Dr Varney’s team includes another bioarcheologist, Dr Treena Swanston (University of Saskatchewan), a bone tissue-imaging specialist Dr David Cooper (University of Saskatchewan), and a chemist/synchrotron beamline scientist, Dr Ian Coulthard (Canadian Light Source). (I actually had to look up that last one too) However impressive this team is, they wanted to connect with historians with a similar interest to collaborate. Was I interested? Of course!

Ever since that first email, we have been exchanging information from our respective expertise on a regular basis, and we hope to publish something together at some point in the future. Right here, I’d like to give a taste of what a historian of medicine can do with the data of a bioarcheologist, as I feel many academics are still a bit reticent about cooperating with someone from an entirely different field.

My initial thought was that remains with high mercury levels may have come either from a patient treated with large amounts of mercury-based drugs, as was common at the time in venereal disease and many other ailments, or from a professional who worked with mercury, such as a doctor. Yet ‘a doctor’ is so general it is obviously of little use to anyone, so when I was in London to give a talk at the National Maritime Museum in April, I seized the opportunity to check some papers on the Royal Naval Hospital in Antigua to see if I could find some information on the use of mercurial drugs there.

Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua, today.

Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua, today.

The papers kept at the NMM were property of Sir John Borlase Warren (2 September 1753 – 27 February 1822), commander in chief of the North America Station of the Royal Navy from 1807-1810 and in 1812-1814.[i] The station was based at Halifax Naval Yard in Novia Scotia. This apparently put him in charge of the appointments of personal at, amongst others, the Antigua Naval Hospital. During the 18th century, Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet, so it made sense to have a Royal Naval Hospital there.

From the correspondence at the NMM, it appears that James Veitch M.D. was surgeon of the Antigua Naval Hospital, and that he was in charge of the hospital and the distribution of drugs among the patients. Veitch also published some work on medicine, most notably A letter to the Commissioners for Transports, and Sick and Wounded Seamen, on the non-contagious nature of the yellow fever.[ii]  In it, he writes the following:

I decidedly agree with Mr. Pym, as to the rapidity of convalescence and restoration to

Yellow fever was a big problem in harbours in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Here 'Yellow Jack' is shown knocking on the city gates of New York City. NY suffered a yellow fever epidemic in 1793.

Yellow fever was a big problem in harbours in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Here ‘Yellow Jack’ is shown knocking on the city gates of New York City. NY suffered a yellow fever epidemic in 1793.

health, after the cure of this fever; and instances, of men relapsing, were not known at the Hospital at Antigua; particularly, where we had the good fortune to receive the patient early, and we consequently had an opportunity of thoroughly subduing the fatal movements of this disease; by decisive evacuations. When patients however, were admitted to the Hospital, who were improperly denominated convalescent, and whose treatment had not been managed with a decisive hand; and where determinations to internal organs, of a chronic nature, had taken place, these often suffered relapse:, but such relapses could not be called Yellow fever; they were symptomatic and yielded to mercurials.”[iii]

To cure the frequently occurring yellow fever, Veitch advised a combination of purging, bleeding and mercury.[iv]

This shows that mercurial drugs were used routinely at the Antigua Naval Hospital in the early nineteenth century. The remains with high mercury levels are therefore probably from a patient who had been repeatedly and for a long time been treated with mercurial drugs, although for a historian it is impossible to tell whether this was for yellow fever or another disease. However, a bioarcheologist has the tools to investigate this further. As Dr. Varney puts it: “Given that bone is a really slow tissue in terms of turnover and healing, and that it is only affected by a low percentage of diseases in terms of readily visible lesions, the combination of this imaging and chemical analysis with historical information has the potential to reveal and verify information that could not be otherwise.” To be continued!

[i] Letters and Papers Relating to Hospitals 1808 – 1814. Paperwork relating to the building work at Halifax naval hospital, and also of expenditure at Halifax and Melville Island hospitals. There are also letters regarding hospitals at Bermuda and Antigua, as well as correspondence from the transport office. 11th June 1808 – 31st June 1814. NMM WAR/19

[iii] Ibidem, 109-10.

[iv] Ibidem, 131 cont.


About mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science, art, and ideas, with a particular interest in material culture, art and knowledge theory, the history of sensory perception, and digital humanities research methods. I currently work at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012 and have held fellowships at institutions such as the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections, medicine chests and anatomical preparation and modelling methods to the production of coloured glass, the transformation of alchemy in the Netherlands, and the emergence of the concept ‘technique’ in art theory. If you would like to contact me, please send an email to or use the contact form below. I am happy to answer questions regarding my research and publications or early modern history of art, science and medicine more generally, and to engage in public outreach activities.
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2 Responses to Mercury and lead in bones: an outing to bioarcheology

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Dead men do tell tales!

  2. Pingback: The blogging historian | The Medicine Chest

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