Early elixirs – calomel

stylised pocketwatch illustration

‘The doctor comes with free good will, but ne’er forgets his calomel’

The highly toxic ‘cure-all’ calomel is all but forgotten today, but it was administered across the world from the 17th century until the 1950s, causing a litany of side effects.

Calomel, or mercury (I) chloride, was used to treat a variety of illnesses in the centuries before it was discovered to be highly toxic and cause a variety of debilitating and eventually deadly side effects.1

It was used in ointments to treat cuts, abrasions and syphilitic lesions as well as in pills and powders to induce vomiting and as a laxative in the treatment of ‘bilious fevers’, including typhus, typhoid, malaria, cholera, dysentery, yellow and dengue fevers.2

A brief history
Although it likely originated in China, the use of calomel was first pioneered in the west in the late Renaissance, by alchemists who believed there are only three base illnesses – mercurial, saline and sulphuric diseases.3

To cure these three types of diseases, they theorised, one must administer the cause of the disease, including mercury to cure mercurial disease.

Once adherents of this school of medicine were banned from practising in France, they took their ideas to Great Britain and then on to the American colonies. It was in the United States during the 19th century that calomel found widespread use as proponent Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and later ‘the greatest physician in the United States’, advocated its use for almost every disease.

A particularly popular calomel-based treatment was Livingstone Rousers, used as an antipyretic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory. It was named after the British explorer David Livingstone and was carried on Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition.4

Numerous calomel preparations were sold in Australia, including Steedman’s Soothing Powders. Marketed locally from the 1880s, it was indicated to relieve symptoms of teething in children.5

Toxicity fears
Concerns over the toxicity of medicines containing mercury have been well-known since at least the early 19th century. In 1825, a poem took aim at physicians with the words:

‘Since calomel’s become their boast,
How many patients have they lost,
How many thousands they make ill,
Of poison, with their calomel’.

The side effects of prolonged exposure to mercury poisoning include the loss of hair, teeth and nails, skin peeling off hands and feet, sensitivity to light, diarrhoea, vomiting, tremors, paleness and exhaustion.

However, it was not until 1953 that powders such as Steedman’s were removed from sale in Australia, after US researchers established the link between its use and infantile acrodynia, also known as pink disease.6

While calomel has ceased to be used medically, it continues to be present in some unregulated skin-lightening treatments,7 the use of which has been linked to renal and peripheral nerve damage.

[1] Schmid, J. Beautiful Black Poison. [Internet]. Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2008. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/environmental-toxins/beautiful-black-poison/

[2] Davis, L. E. (2000). Unregulated potions still cause mercury poisoning. Western Journal of Medicine, 173(1), 19.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1070962/

[3] Paracelsus [webpage] The Encyclopeadia Britannica. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Paracelsus

[4] Haynes, A. Not much fun on Christmas Day 1911. The Pharmaceutical Journal. https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/not-much-fun-on-christmas-day-1911/11091730.article

[5] Black, J. The Puzzle of Pink Disease. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1999, September, Volume 92, p478-481.  https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1297367&blobtype=pdf

[6] Bjørklund, G. Mercury and Acrodynia. Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, 1995, Volume 10, Number 3 and 4. p145-146. http://www.toxcenter.org/artikel/Mertrcury-and-Acrodynia.pdf

[7] Kerrie, S. and Austin, D. W. Ancestry of Pink Disease (Infantile Acrodynia) Identified as a Risk Factor for Autism Spectrum Disorders. [Internet] Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. 2011. Part a, 74(18). p1185–1194. http://doi.org/10.1080/15287394.2011.590097