This past weekend I developed flu-like symptoms and spent entire days just lying down on the couch (watching Bones—for which my husband doesn’t share my passion). I was miserable, cursing the Biblical fall of man, as it were, and feeling like I’d never leave the house again. But here I am, having just finished a shift at work and only dealing with an annoying case of the sniffles. What did this experience make me think of? Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.
According to American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, Alcott developed pneumonia (or maybe typhoid) while working as a nurse in Washington D.C. during the Civil War. Following the practice of the time, a doctor administered her some calomel.
Calomel is a compound essentially made of mercury and chlorine. Do I need to repeat that? Mercury and chlorine. Two extremely dangerous and poisonous elements. It was used as a purgative during the Age of Heroic Medicine, when blood-letting, vomiting, sweating, and intestinal purging were used to treat diseases. So if you have the flu, the best thing to do is bleed all over the floor, throw up, and then purge your bowels in a chamber-pot next to your bed. I can’t imagine why the average life span in 1860 was about 40.
Anyway, Alcott was treated with calomel and continued to work as a nurse. Her gums started to bleed; her tongue swelled; her full, beautiful hair began to fall out. Only six weeks after she first arrived in Washington, Alcott was chaperoned back home. By this time, the mercury poisoning had destroyed her nervous system. She felt so much pain she was unable for a time to walk, and she had to learn how to write with her left hand because her right was too rheumatic. Alcott never fully recovered but instead became an opium addict a she tried to deal with the pain.
Calomel was used to treat any number of diseases in the 19th century. Meriwether Lewis took calomel-laced pills on the Expedition and administered them to his men sick with syphilis. (Yes, actually, most of the members of the Corps of Discovery were sick with venereal diseases during the entire expedition.) And most of the time the mercury simply passed right through their systems. Modern day scholars can actually trace parts of the Lewis and Clark route by the “deposits” of mercury. You know you are making history when people consider finding your excrement an exciting discovery.
Another fun mercury fact: Mozart, the child prodigy of classical music, may have actually died because of a dose of mercury to treat his syphilis. And Isaac Newton, the closet alchemist, experimented so much with the stuff that 25 times the normal amount of mercury was posthumously found in his hair.
I am kind of in love with this subject, mercury and all these other barbaric cures. What pre-21st century cures do you find the most gruesome and interesting?