Mercury, the cure for what ails you

Toothache? Rash? Lice? Old age? Quicksilver to the rescue.1

MercuryElemental mercury was known and used by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Hindus. In fact, the Hindu word for “alchemy”, Rasasiddhi, translates into “knowledge of mercury.” This liquid metal was historically touted as the cure for just about everything from infant teething pain to laxatives.

Persian philosopher Avicenna, in his famous Canon of Medicine (1025) advocates mercury for the treatment of skin disorders, lice and other vermin, and is listed in the book’s materia medica.

Cinnabar, the largest natural source of mercury, is a reddish mineral containing mercury and sulfur and has been used as a pigment since prehistoric times. In Italy, prehistoric skulls have been found painted with this mineral. It has also been located at a Mayan site in Peru.

The Chinese used mercury from as far back as the second century in their search for immortality. Alchemist Ko Hung in the 4th century believed that perfection could be attained by eating gold. As poor people would be less likely to acquire gold, he believed he could create it from cinnabar. Hung also believed that one could walk on water after smearing cinnabar on the feet and that a drink of cinnabar and raspberry juice could enable elderly men to father children. (Viagra anyone?)

Incidentally, the “little blue pills” of the 19th century were not Viagra, but a concoction derived mainly from mercury called “blue mass”. They were prescribed for just about anything: apoplexy, worms, tuberculosis, toothaches, child-bearing. U.S. President Lincoln, it is said, took this pill for constipation.

For centuries, mercury was used to treat syphilis. The patient would either take the treatment orally, by injection, or by rubbing it over the infected area. Better yet, fumigate the infected person in a box filled with mercury fumes, with his head sticking out. Hmm…death from syphilis or mercury poisoning? Still not sure.

Thankfully, after trying other non-effective treatments, mercury as a cure-all soon gave way to penicillin and other relevant methods of treatment. I should probably note also that mercury never quite cured mortality or syphilis or any of those aforementioned diseases. Although I’m sure it might have cured the problem of old age.

Remember: “Primum non nocere” (First, do no harm)

  1. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor have I ever played one on TV. Mercury in any dose is poisonous and can be fatal. Do not try this shit at home! 

7 replies

  1. I want to say in the novel Huckleberry Finn they put mercury in loaves of bread and then put the bread in the river because it was believed the mercury would lead the searchers to a dead body. 🙂

    I’m a historian. I love this stuff. You need to do MORE!


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