The “remedy” was usually extra horrifying than the illness – as a result of the remedy was mercury, one of the well-known poisonous substances on the planet.
Within the 1800s and early 1900s, docs usually prescribed mercury for syphilis and different venereal illnesses. 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 – had 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 principle 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 purple bile, blood, and phlegm. Illness meant the humors had been out of whack; purging was thought to deliver 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 usually only a momentary respite. That would make it laborious to inform what was really serving to, what was hurting, and what was solely an phantasm. In the meantime, mercury-treated sufferers had 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 means of Vaginal Douches,” revealed 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 subsequent 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 chronic 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 by means 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 a protracted historical past of medicinal use – and an equally lengthy litany of devastating unwanted effects, based on Lydia Kang, MD, assistant professor of normal inside medication on the College of Nebraska Medical Middle and creator of Quackery: A Transient Historical past of the Worst Methods to Remedy All the things.
Teething powders containing calomel, often known as mercurous chloride, was bought till 1948; it prompted a situation referred to as pink illness in infants: icy, swollen, purple, and intensely itchy palms and toes.
Mercury-laced “cures” for melancholy, constipation, influenza, and parasites prompted an sickness often known as mercurial erethism. Typically referred to as mad hatter’s illness after the Nineteenth century haberdashers who caught it from publicity in the course of the felting course of, mercurial erethism is a neurological dysfunction characterised by tremors, nervousness, pathological shyness, and frequent sighing.
“Mercury grew to become 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 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 persevered for therefore lengthy not solely due to the absence of simpler cures, says Kang. It was additionally the results of a cussed mindset.
“There have been individuals who had 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 laborious to vary within the absence of data that may persuade a complete inhabitants and a whole era of medical staff to vary their minds.”