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Nineteenth-Century Docs Prescribed a Harmful Douche: Liquid Mercury


The “treatment” was usually extra horrifying than the illness – as a result of the treatment was mercury, one of the vital well-known poisonous substances on the planet.

Within the 1800s and early 1900s, docs usually 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 assorted 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 docs and sufferers, that was how they knew the therapy was working.

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

Syphilis, which affected 10% of England’s inhabitants on the finish of the Nineteenth century, has a cycle of remission and recurrence, so what regarded like a treatment was usually only a non permanent respite. That might make it arduous to inform what was really 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 by way of Vaginal Douches,” printed within the Journal of the American Medical Affiliation. The doctor creator 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 immediately into her vagina. The article described her ache, swelling, cramping, diarrhea, and chronic vomiting, adopted by kidney failure. She died 6 days later.

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

However that didn’t cease docs from prescribing it.

Mercury has an extended historical past of medicinal use – and an equally lengthy litany of devastating unwanted side effects, in accordance with Lydia Kang, MD, assistant professor of basic inner drugs on the College of Nebraska Medical Middle and creator of Quackery: A Transient Historical past of the Worst Methods to Treatment All the pieces.

Teething powders containing calomel, also referred to as mercurous chloride, was bought till 1948; it prompted a situation referred to as pink illness in infants: icy, swollen, pink, and intensely itchy palms and ft.

Mercury-laced “cures” for melancholy, constipation, influenza, and parasites prompted an sickness often called mercurial erethism. Typically referred to as mad hatter’s illness after the Nineteenth century haberdashers who caught it from publicity throughout the felting course of, mercurial erethism is a neurological dysfunction characterised by tremors, anxiousness, pathological shyness, and frequent sighing.

“Mercury grew to become a catch-all drugs 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 might 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 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 feel the medication is making me sicker than the syphilis,’ however their voices obtained drowned out. Establishment may be very arduous to vary within the absence of knowledge that may persuade a complete inhabitants and a complete technology of medical employees to vary their minds.”

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