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.