‘Mercurialia are worrisome’: dangerous recipes

By Marieke Hendriksen

To anyone familiar with the practices of Thomas Dover (1662-1742), alias the Quicksilver Doctor, it may seem like mercury and mercury-based drugs were prescribed and taken rather indiscriminately by physicians, apothecaries and patients in the eighteenth century.[i] However, pharmaceutical handbooks, often written by experienced pharmacists under the auspices of university professors of medicine, give an entirely different view. These handbooks, some of which were reprinted in great numbers for decades, were aimed at professional apothecaries and other medical men. Although virtually every pharmaceutical handbook listed mercurial drugs, they all warn against using them too liberally.

Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.
Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.

A good example can be found in the four Dutch editions of the Medicina pharmaceutica, or Great general treasury of pharmaceutical medicine, which appeared between 1681 and 1741.[ii] In the first edition, at least nine different recipes involving mercury in some form are listed. Because of mercury’s alleged cleansing and purging properties, these cures were recommended for ailments as diverse as intestinal worms, venereal disease, and skin infections.[iii]

However, in the fifth book of that same edition, the volume on ‘Shop Compositions’ (drugs composed to sell ready made in the apothecaries’ shop), over half a page is spend on a warning about antimonial and mercurial drugs, summarized in the index as ‘Mercurialia zyn sorghelyck,’ which translates as ‘Mercurialia are worrisome.’ Following a list of drugs prepared from a variety of minerals, metals and stones, the author warns that it is not his intention to give the ‘Masters of medicine’ the idea that they should prescribe these dangerous cures often; only when there were no other options left should they revert to them.[iv] The other options, it appears, were mainly traditional herbal remedies, as the author writes:

God almighty has blessed us with some common or native herbs and remedies, that have such a power invested in them, that these can be used in general and without vicissitudes or thinking twice to cure the ill, so one should always use these first, before one turns to some dangerous and strange medicaments from chemistry; so it would be a great deception and recklessness to apply prepared Antimony or Quicksilver, if one is provided with other harmless and powerful remedies, as the former often needlessly do great damage, or could even cause death.[v]

Only if a disease did not respond to the herbal remedies could ‘dangerous chemical preparations’ be applied. As this was the first edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica from 1681, and the first decades of the eighteenth century saw an increasing incorporation of chemistry in the academy, one might expect that the last edition from 1741 was less tentative about the prescription of chemical remedies.[vi] Previous editions had been printed in Brussels, but the 1741 edition was printed in Leiden–a city with one of the leading medical faculties of Europe at the time. The reprint even had a preface written by the Leiden professor of chemistry Hieronymus Gaub. Although the spelling of the 1741 edition was updated to modern standards, the same old warning was once again repeated.

This raises questions about the extent to which early chemical research and teaching at universities was changing professional medical men’s understanding and application of mercurial, or other chemically-based, remedies. Moreover, the apparent contrast between the cautions and warnings in professional handbooks like these and popular culture on the one hand, and the ostensible popularity of mercury remedies on the other, makes this a fascinating research topic.


[i] Also see Kenneth Dewhurst, The Quicksilver Doctor. The Life and Times of Thomas Dover Physician and Adventurer (Bristol: John Wright & Sons Ltd., 1957).

[ii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst (Leiden: Isaak Severinus, 1741). De Farvacques, the personal physician of Charles II, was not really the author of this book. His name was used by the actual author, the Brussels friar Peter Gilles, to lend it more authority. See L.J. Vanderwiele, “Broeder Petrus Gillis S.J. (1620-1697), Auteur van Medicina Pharmaceutica of Drogbereidende Geneeskonst”, Kring voor de geschiedenis van de pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin. 69 (maart 1986): 8–16.

[iii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst. (Brussels, Francois Foppens, 1681), Vol. V, 932-5, 951-5.

[iv] Ibid., 967.

[v] Ibid.: ‘Want aengesien Godt almachtigh ons met eenighe ghemeynsaeme, oft inlandtsche heylsaeme kruyden ende drôghen heeft ghejont, die met sulcken kracht zyn begaeft, dat-men ghemeynelyck met de selve sonder peryckel oft achterdencken de siecken kan ghenesen, soo behoort-men altoos eerst de selve the ghebruycken, eer men sich begheeft om eenighe ghevaerlycke ende vremde middelen uyt de schey-konst te nemen; soo dat het een groot bedrogh oft reuckeloosheydt soude wesen, achter den bereyden Antimonie oft Quick in ‘t werck te stellen, soo wanneer men versien is van andere schadeloose ende krachtighe remedien, door dien men also dickmaels sonder noot aen onsen evenaesten groote schade, jae de doodt selfs soude konnen aen-brenghen.’ (Translation mine)

[vi] On the formation of chemistry as an academic discipline in the early eighteenth century see Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge. Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), chapter 4.

A recipe fit for a king

Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.
Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.

By Laurence Totelin

One of my favourite characters in the history of ancient pharmacology is Attalus III, king of Pergamum (ruled from 138 to 133 BCE). As a king, he is remembered for bequeathing his small kingdom to Rome at his death. Apart from that, we know very little about his rule. Instead of focusing on his political achievements, ancient historical sources dwell on his strange hobbies. According to the historians Plutarch (first-second century CE, wrote in Greek) Justin (second century CE, wrote in Latin), after having his mother and wife killed, the king lost all interest in his physical appearance and developed a passion for gardening.  He planted highly poisonous herbs such as henbane, hemlock and hellebore in his gardens. He then sent to his friends samples of these plants, mixing their sap to that of non-poisonous plants. Tired of this, he then moved on to wax-modeling and pouring and forging bronze.

Plutarch and Justin are very negative in their presentation of these silly pastimes. For a more positive view of Attalus, one has to turn to medical and agronomic texts. The Latin agronomical writers Varro (116–27 BCE), Columella (first century CE), and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) list the king as a source on animals, fruit trees, crops, drugs from animals, metals and gems. Celsus (first century CE), in his work on medicine, gives a recipe for an Attalic plaster (5.19.11), which contains relatively large amounts of copper.  He does not, however, say whether that plaster had been created by the king Attalus or by a namesake:

There is the Attalic plaster for wounds. It contains: copper scales, 16 sextulae; frankincense soot, 15 sextulae; ammoniac salt, same amount; liquid turpentine resin, 25 sextulae; bull suet, same amount; vinegar, three heminae; oil, 1 sextarius.[1]

Although interesting, these Latin sources do not add more to our knowledge of Attalus. For more information, one needs to turn to Galen. The famous physician too came from Pergamum and on several occasions refers to Attalus as ‘Attalus who was king among us’, that is, king among the people of Pergamum. Galen was active several centuries after the death of the king, but he may have had access to some lost Pergamene sources. He may also have consulted the king’s lost medical works. He casts a very different light on Attalus’ experiments with dangerous plants. In a passage on another king, Mithridates VI of Pontus, he writes that:

Mithridates himself, like Attalus among us, desired to have experience of almost all simple drugs that are given against deadly substances, testing their powers on evil men who were condemned to death.[2]

Galen presents the two kings as methodic researchers in the field of pharmacology. While their method of experimentation seems abhorrent to us, Galen approves of it, as it greatly advanced knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Galen also devotes a great part of his treatise On the Composition of Medicines according to Types I to various Attalic plasters. There is no doubt in Galen’s mind that these were created by the last king of Pergamum:

White plaster made with pepper, according to Attalus… This remedy has already been prepared many years ago by Attalus, ruling over us people of Pergamum, a man who was most studious about all sorts of remedies.[3]

Again Galen presents his fellow countryman as a serious scholar, not as a mad hatter. Who is right? Galen or the historians Plutarch and Justin? Nobody will ever know, but Attalus’ story is an excellent exercise in source criticism!

 


[1] Celsus, De Medicina 5.19.11. A sextula is a sixth of an ounce. An hemina is a half of a sextarius. A sextarius is roughly the equivalent of a British pint.

[2] Galen, On Antidotes 1.1 (14.2 Kühn).

[3] Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Types 1.13 (13.414 Kühn).