The “remedy” was typically extra horrifying than the illness – as a result of the remedy was mercury, probably the most well-known poisonous substances on the planet.

Within the 1800s and early 1900s, medical doctors typically prescribed mercury for syphilis and different venereal ailments. It was an ointment; it was added to vapor baths; it was even used as a vaginal or urethral douche.

Sufferers dabbed it on their sores or inhaled it. Docs administered it utilizing a tool made by a French instrument-maker: a receptacle for holding the liquid mercury compound, with a inexperienced hose and attachments of varied sizes for insertion into the vagina or urethra.

The ensuing signs – extreme cramping, salivating, diarrhea, and vomiting – have been violently disagreeable. However for a lot of Nineteenth-century medical doctors and sufferers, that was how they knew the therapy was working.

On the time, many medical doctors nonetheless believed within the humoral concept of illness, courting again to Hippocrates, a number of centuries BCE. The concept was that the human physique held a mixture of 4 humors, or fluids: black bile, yellow or crimson bile, blood, and phlegm. Illness meant the humors have been out of whack; purging was thought to carry them into stability.

Syphilis, which affected 10% of England’s inhabitants on the finish of the Nineteenth century, has a cycle of remission and recurrence, so what appeared like a remedy was typically only a non permanent respite. That would make it laborious to inform what was truly serving to, what was hurting, and what was solely an phantasm. In the meantime, mercury-treated sufferers have been dying.

The “irritating impact” of douching with the mercury-containing compound was famous in a 1910 article with the unsparing title, “Poisoning by Mercuric Chloride via Vaginal Douches,” printed within the Journal of the American Medical Affiliation. The doctor writer chronicles one notably grisly case: a 35-year-old girl who sought medical care after 4 days of persistent vomiting.

Over the following a number of days, she vomited blood, fell right into a stupor, and developed kidney failure. She died 1 week after consulting the physician.

A 1916 article within the British Medical Journal, “Perchloride of Mercury Poisoning by Absorption from the Vagina,” instructed the story of a 27-year-old girl who douched with mercury perchloride tablets dissolved in water, then positioned one pill instantly into her vagina. The article described her ache, swelling, cramping, diarrhea, and protracted vomiting, adopted by kidney failure. She died 6 days later.

“It’s evident that the absorption of the poison in poisonous portions will need to have taken place via the vagina,” wrote the writer of the 1910 article. “This case … must represent a warning to physicians that mercury can hardly be employed with security on this method.”

However that didn’t cease medical doctors from prescribing it.

Mercury has a protracted historical past of medicinal use – and an equally lengthy litany of devastating uncomfortable side effects, based on Lydia Kang, MD, assistant professor of basic inside medication on the College of Nebraska Medical Heart and writer of Quackery: A Temporary Historical past of the Worst Methods to Treatment All the things.

Teething powders containing calomel, often known as mercurous chloride, was offered till 1948; it brought on a situation known as pink illness in infants: icy, swollen, crimson, and intensely itchy fingers and ft.

Mercury-laced “cures” for melancholy, constipation, influenza, and parasites brought on an sickness often known as mercurial erethism. Usually known as mad hatter’s illness after the Nineteenth century haberdashers who caught it from publicity through the felting course of, mercurial erethism is a neurological dysfunction characterised by tremors, nervousness, pathological shyness, and frequent sighing.

“Mercury turned a catch-all medication to purge in all these alternative ways,” Kang says. For syphilis, “they felt prefer it was doing one thing versus nothing.”

Sufferers who inhaled or consumed mercury suffered probably the most poisonous results, Kang says; a douche meant a smaller, shorter-lasting publicity. However repeated or extremely concentrated use could possibly be deadly.

Salvarsan, an antimicrobial agent developed by a Japanese professor within the early 1900s, and penicillin, launched as a therapy for syphilis within the early Nineteen Forties, modified the sport. However mercury therapy endured for therefore lengthy not solely due to the absence of more practical cures, says Kang. It was additionally the results of a cussed mindset.

“There have been individuals who have been fairly logical saying, ‘I believe the drugs is making me sicker than the syphilis,’ however their voices received drowned out. Established order may be very laborious to vary within the absence of knowledge that may persuade a complete inhabitants and a complete era of medical staff to vary their minds.”

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