Mercury has a long history as a therapeutic drug. Used by Arab doctors in the Middle Ages to treat skin disorders, it became the most popular treatment for venereal disease after the major outbreak of syphilis (thought by some to have been brought back from the New World by Columbus’s crew) in the late fifteenth century.
Until the nineteenth century it was employed to treat a wide variety of illnesses: one of its compounds, calomel, was a commonly used laxative. Unfortunately it is also highly toxic, and many who took it were permanently damaged by its side-effects. When this became apparent, and better drugs were developed, it was virtually banished from the pharmacist’s arsenal.
Early journals are full of references to mercury and its compounds, but this – from an edition of Medical Facts and Observations published in 1793 – is the only instance I’ve come across of its being inhaled.
Mr —, aged thirty-one years, of a spare habit, and subject to scrophulous affections of the sub-maxillary glands [swelling of the salivary glands], between four and five years ago, on a sudden, and without the smallest injury or previous indisposition, became sensible of such a defect in the sight of his right eye, that he was unable to take his favourite diversion of shooting, in the usual way: however, as the sight of the left eye enabled him to read, and to use a left-handed gun pretty successfully, he was contented; and probably would have remained so, had not that likewise began to fail: — a circumstance of which he first took notice about six weeks before he applied to me.
Dr Blagdon, the surgeon who examined him, found that the pupils of both eyes were fully contracted, as if staring into a bright light. With his left eye the patient could barely see the largest capital letters on his ophthalmic chart; with the right he could only distinguish light from darkness. Like all good physicians, Dr Blagdon was up to date with the literature, and decided to try a remedy he had recently read about in one of the medical journals:
The case seemed to me a fair one for a trial of the mercurial snuff recommended, and so successfully used, by Mr. Ware, in the third volume of the Memoirs of the London Medical Society; and I, accordingly, directed the patient to take a pinch of it (prepared by mixing five grains of the hydrargyrus vitriolatus with thirty-five of the pulvis asari compositus) every night
‘Hydrargyrus vitriolatus’ is a mixture of mercury and sulphuric acid – not obviously something you’d want to stick up your nose. ‘Pulvis asari compositus’ is a fine powder made from a rare herb, hazelwort, and intended to promote sneezing.
As he smiled at the idea of being cured by a pinch of snuff, I gave him two tea-spoonfuls of a mixture, composed of equal parts of tincture of valerian and compound tincture of lavender, twice a day in a cup of rosemary tea: the dose was, afterwards, increased to three tea-spoonfuls.
Dr Blagdon evidently knew that this inoffensive herbal tea would have little effect: an interesting early appreciation of the power of the placebo effect.
Within a few weeks the patient’s sight had improved: he could read large text with his left eye and could now make out capitals with the right.
The pupils were, in their general appearance, less contracted; and they were affected more sensibly by the impression of light. The first five or six times of using the snuff it made his nose bleed freely, and so long as it produced this effect, he thought he perceived the advances more strikingly; an additional two grains and an half of the mercurial were therefore put to the next quantity of the pulv. asari c. and the haemorrhage from the nose was reproduced as often as it was made use of.
The nosebleeds sound worrying; but the improvement seemed dramatic.
On the 28th of October, the appearance and contraction of the pupils were natural; — the patient could read a newspaper, and was able to shoot correctly with his right-handed gun. On the 18th of November, the sight of both eyes was in every respect perfect.
Despite the apparent success of this cure, inhaling mercury is strongly discouraged.