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An account from 1921 related how a baby’s hands became cold, swollen and red. Flesh slit off, with the hands resembling ‘Blanched tomatoes’. Weight loss, crying, and scratching that ripped the skin were noted. Her mother felt that, if the child had been an adult, her behaviour would have led to a diagnosis of insanity.

In time, the ailment received the name acrodynia, meaning painful tips. However, in 1921, they simply named it Pink’s Disease. More and more cases were being diagnosed every year, and doctors had no idea what was causing it. A variety of culprits were names, including allergies, arsenic, viruses and ergot. But by the 1950’s, the majority of cases pointed to a single cause: calomel.

In the hope of easing the teething pains of the children, parents would rub one of the many available teething powders into the sore gums of their infants. Most of these powders contained calomel, alleged to have a number of curative and strength giving properties. However, the reality is that a far more potent chemical was hidden in the substance: mercury. Mercury products had been thought for some time to offer a variety of health giving properties. Everything from parasites to syphilis to melancholy had been attributed at one time or another to the substance’s curative properties. In the liquid form of quicksilver it had been widely used for centuries. And calomel, also known as mercurous chloride, made use of the substance as a salt.

It had been used by a wide variety of different characters throughout history: Napoleon, Poe, Alcott and Andrew Jackson all partook of it at one point. Calomel had been used as a medicine since the Sixteenth Century. In appearance, it seemed mild enough, just an odourless white powder. However, the reality was something far more sinister. It works as a violent cathartic, emptying your bowels swiftly, which was what gave it much of its reputation as a cure-all. Some thought part of its name referred to the dark stools that users ejected, which many thought were purged bile in accordance with classical health teachings.

Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers, pioneered humane treatment of psychiatric patients. Sadly, he felt that calomel was the ideal cure. He recommended it for the treatment of hypochondria, under the impression that if would extract ‘Morbid excitement’ from the brain, depositing in the mouth. And that by focussing the patient’s complaint on their sore mouth, they would forget their other fictitious ailments. They also ended up developing very real ailments in the form of heavy metal toxicity and mercurial erethism. This latter induced sighing, anxiety, depression, and pathological shyness, compounding whatever apparent mental illnesses the patient already had. Combine with physical trembling and a whole host of other degenerative symptoms, mercury poisoning (or Mad Hatter’s disease) was and is a comprehensive recipe for physical and mental collapse.

Rush’s enthusiasm for mercury poisoning continued with the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793. He encouraged ‘Heroic depletion therapy’, whereby patients were subject to heavy doses of calomel (sometimes ten times the usual amount) and massive bloodletting. Even his similarly morbid contemporaries found his methods excessive. He succeeded in bringing the death rate of the epidemic up from 33% in the general population to 46% among his own patients. Despite his wildly ill thought out approach to calomel, Rush’s policies on dealing with standing water and sanitation played a major role in reducing the population of mosquitoes that had been acting as vectors for the disease. But calomel, and mercury products in general, continued to be used widely around the world until the mid Twentieth Century.