A Study of Chronic Mercurialism in the Hatter’s Fur Industry

Back in the day, mercury was used extensively in medicine. Calomel purgative, for example, a mercury product, was used up until the 1960s!

The ensuing poisoning may well have been missed, but at least doctors who had seen it often enough regarded it as a possibility. A poem from 1846, called “the Calomel Song,” describes doctors using it in every possible scenario and ends with the lines:

“Well if I must resign my breath,

Pray let me die a natural death

And if I must bid all farewell,

Don’t hurry me with calomel.”

I like my Kindle device because books mold here in the tropics and it also allows me to get “the complete works” of various classical authors for free. Reading the biographies of some authors of the last hundred years or so, I think, “Wow, that certainly sounds mercurial!” James Boswell, who wrote the life of Samuel Johnson in 1791 seemed a pretty eccentric kind of guy, and describes taking mercury after catching gonorrhea from street prostitutes. Nikolai Gogol went mad in his later years in a rather distinctive way, as did Guy de Maupassant who had syphilis for which the then treatment was mercury. Louisa May Alcott was chronically ill for most of her life. She claimed her problems stemmed from the mercury she was given when she contracted typhoid fever while working in an army hospital during the Civil War.

People also got exposed in their work places as this U.S. Public Health Service pamphlet of 1937, about which I am writing, describes.

Nowadays, the medical community is under the misconception that nobody gets exposed to mercury anymore. Yet mercury poisoning happens apace, although it is almost impossible to get a diagnosis. David Hammond, in his book, Mercury Poisoning, the Undiagnosed Epidemic, describes a job where he stood around watching molten steel being made into ingots. The ingots were melted down from old automobiles that hadn’t had their mercury switches removed. He spent 30 years going from doctor to doctor and ultimately had to figure out what was wrong on his own.

Dr. Jane Hightower, in her book Diagnosis Mercury, describes how she discovered that the complex cases that were being referred to her were people getting poisoned from eating too much large, expensive fish. Our mercury support groups on Facebook are full of people who were poisoned by their amalgam fillings.

There are still many, many ways to get exposed to mercury. Some of these are so political and controversial that I won’t mention them for fear of getting censored and having my website sabotaged.

“A Study of Chronic Mercurialism in the Hatter’s Fur Industry” is a pamphlet printed by The United states Public Health Service, the precursor to the CDC. The study was done in 1935 by two medical doctors, two engineers and a statistician. Andy Cutler encouraged me to read this pamphlet because it was a very systematic look at chronic mercury toxicity. I thought that it could only be had by going to a university library but the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont was able to obtain it through an inter-library loan with the University of Rhode Island. The volume containing the pamphlet is hand-lettered and hand-bound with sturdy brown cardboard. About five other pamphlets on other topics are bound up in the same volume. One of the topics covered was about an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in Seattle in 1910. No, they did not shut down any businesses but a lot of rat control measures were put in to place.

This study on chronic mercurialism concerns the conditions of workers employed in the fur cutting industry and was conducted at the request of the NRA code authority for that industry. (NRA stands for “National Recovery Act” which was enacted under Franklin Roosevelt to help industry recover from The Depression.) At that time, around 2,000 men and women worked in 36 factories preparing the fur of rabbits and hares to be transformed into felt by the felting industry and for the subsequent manufacturing of hats.

In one stage of the process called “carroting” mercury nitrate was applied to the fur and measurable quantities would leave the fur in the form of vapor and dust which continued to contaminate the workplace in succeeding stages of the manufacturing process. A large number of workers were exposed to mercury dust and vapor in this industry.