‘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.

Dr. Crawford Long’s Remedy for Insect Bites – Another Use for Ether

By: Michelle DiMeo

On May 20, 1847, Dr. Crawford W. Long was called to see a child residing 6 miles outside of Jefferson, Georgia, who had been bitten by an insect four hours earlier. He was at least 100 yards away when he “distinctly heard her screams”. The child was in extreme pain and suffering from various symptoms, including stomach cramps, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and muscle spasms in the abdomen. The family had given her “about half pint of brandy … two portions of sen[e]ka snake root boiled in ^sweet^ milk and … two teaspoons full of Aqua ammonia, but all without the least benefit”. Dr. Long administered “eighty drops Tinct Opii, a teaspoonful of Hoffmans Anodyne, and the application of the strong Aqua ammonia on a pledget of cloth to the bitten part and retaining it until vesication was produced”. After seeing some improvement, he continued with doses of Hoffman’s Anodyne and the Tincture of Opium in thirty minute intervals, noting the patient was “greatly relieved”.[1]

Hoffman's Anodyne
With Permission from www.SureCureAntiques.com

The preferred remedy, primarily a combination of Hoffman’s Anodyne and opium tincture, worked as an anti-spasmodic and a pain-killer. Hoffman’s Anondyne was a compound sometimes known as “Spirit of Ether”, produced through a process of distillation. Though originally named after the German physician Friedrich Hoffmann (1660- 1742), the recipe was still popular across Europe and the US during the mid-19th century. One 1850s pharmaceutical study of the remedy’s chemical properties found that versions of it varied greatly between commercial manufacturers, between international pharmacopoeia, and from Hoffman’s original recipe.[2]

Dr. Crawford Williamson Long (1815-78), an American surgeon and anesthetist, is one of the first physicians to have administered ether as an anesthesia for surgery. After receiving his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839, he practiced medicine in New York before returning to his home state, Georgia, in 1841. As early as 1842, Dr. Long used sulfuric ether during the surgical removal of a tumor. He continued to use ether in operations over the next few years, but he failed to publish his results until 1849, after anesthesia was already heralded as a major medical innovation.[3]

Dr. Long's Remedy for Insect Bites
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01

While Dr. Long is celebrated today for his innovative use of ether in surgery, the double-sided single-page manuscript from which this story was taken shows that he was also using popular ether-based medical remedies to treat common household ailments, such as insect bites. After the turn of the nineteenth century, ether was drunk in medical remedies in the United States and Europe and became a popular recreational drug in many European countries.[4] In this manuscript, Dr. Long reports that he successfully administered this treatment a second time and he was writing this account specifically because “A great variety of Sovereign remedies have been recommendend [sic] ^as being usefullest^ for the treatment of bites of poisonous insects”, but there was “still great diversity of opinion among the Members of the Medical profession”.

Dr. Long’s narrative is also a good reminder to us that sub-divisions within the medical field were not as defined in the past as they are today: there was nothing wrong with a surgeon exploring pharmaceutical remedies. Further, the fact that he records in detail the household remedies his patient had already tried before he administered his own validates the possibility of their effectiveness, even if they were ineffective in this particular case, and it offers a good example of how diverse medical treatments were often intermingled.


[1] The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01, “Holograph remedy for poisonous insect bites, c. 1847”. This item also includes a typed donation letter from 1971 recording the provenance of the item.

[2] William Procter, Jr., “On Hoffman’s Anodyne Liquor”, American Journal of Pharmacy, 28, 1852, 213-18.

[3] W. M. Crawford, “An Account of the First Use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations”, Southern Medical and Surgical Journal, 5, 1849, 705-713.

[4] Science Museum, “Ether”, http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/ether.aspx Accessed 11/9/2012.