Mercurial Medicine

Sometimes a peculiar thing pops up too often not to take note. Coincidences are part of life and play an even bigger role in fiction. Still the third time is a charm, right? And that’s when a notion becomes something that can’t be ignored.

First it was on the Alienist TV show based on the Caleb Carr novel, then it was on Victoria, the dramatization of the life of Queen Victoria on PBS Masterpiece, and then it was on a series called The Frankenstein Chronicles that I found on Netflix. What am I talking about? The use of mercury to cure syphilis…

Mercury is poisonous. It’s true that poisons and medicines are often the same and it’s only the dosage or purity that kicks helpful into deadly territory. Tiny Digitalis pills can kick-start a stalled heart. It’s derived from the deadly Foxglove flower. More than a little bit and the kick-start is a shutdown.

Mercury is seriously toxic and has been used to cure or treat grave diseases for centuries. Did it ever work? Probably not, but the strength of mercury, the intensity of its side effects, the drama of its own symptoms, indicated to practitioners and patients alike that it was working. This is part of the medicine should hurt, learning should be hard, exercise isn’t effective if you don’t ‘feel the burn,’ and ‘work can’t be fun’ philosophy of life. It’s not my philosophy, but it seems very popular. And it’s something worth thinking about when writing a particular kind of character.

With all sorts of characters with syphilis being treated with mercury popping up on my TV, I began to wonder about Victorian medicine. How dreadful it must have been to get the flu in Victorian London or to need what’s now considered minor surgery or… you get the picture. It’s bloody and it’s ugly and the medical practices seem crude. There are many medical practices and protocols that have changed since then.

There are also many that have changed in just the last 10, 20 or 50 years. I’m old enough to have taken orange-flavored baby aspirin for fevers as a child. Apparently it took almost 20 years between the time the association between aspirin and Reye’s syndrome (both rare & fatal) was noted and the government warning against its use by children in 1982.

This roundabout tale of mercurial medicine pushed me toward writing a story about a family in the early 1970s with a well-stocked medicine cabinet. It’s also opening some doors to stories about the certainty we take for granted about today’s innovations.

Foxglove is pretty & dangerous.


A poster from the collection at the pharmacy museum in Porto, Portugal


Another poster from the pharmacy museum collection.


    • Candy Korman

      Yes, another one!
      It’s that “bitter pill” culinary philosophy. It’s odd because animals are warned off poisons and rotten foods by bad tastes & foul aromas. But humans? We are very strange creatures, busy talking ourselves into peculiar criteria for dining.

  1. ‘the certainty we take for granted about today’s innovations’…Yes!

    Medical drugs go through the best scientific testing currently available, that’s why they are [generally] so expensive, but ‘currently available’ could very quickly turn into ‘yesterday’s quackery’ as new results/breakthroughs emerge. And of course there are the natural remedies distilled into pills and potions.

    Vitamin C? D? E? Fish oil? Those are just a few off the top of my head. They don’t do any harm, unless taken in ridiculous amounts, but science is slowly showing that they don’t do much good either. A healthy diet and minimal processed food will provide pretty much all the vitamins and minerals the body needs, and in a form that the body can best use. Unfortunately, healthy food requires cooking and in our convenience obsessed world, cooking is becoming a lost skill. 🙁

    • Candy Korman

      From a historical perspective, it’s amazing how fast something goes from healthy food, i.e. margarine to unhealthy food, or standard medical protocol, i.e. baby aspirin for the fevers associated with chicken pox in children, to deadly outmoded idea. Yesterday’s quackery, today’s quackery… tomorrow’s quackery too!

      It was just so weird seeing mercury as a cure in three completely different dramas. All are well-researched and reflective of historical fact. I’m just wondering how amusing and antiquated current thinking will seem in 20 years. It’s all a confusing mass of take this and take that…

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