“The doctor comes with free good will, but ne’er forgets his calomel.” —American folk saying
Calomel plays a tiny role in How Sweet the Sound. Poor Anna Hoffman is one of the settlers who had the misfortune to dock their flatboat at Cave-in-Rock. She is very sick (nearer to death than she realizes) with the “ague,” their term for malarial fever. Her husband Benjamin tells pirate Samuel Mason:
“She’s got the ague. The doctor in Pittsburgh bled her and gave us Calomel for her. But we ran out of it three days ago.”
“Well, you should have said so. We’ve got plenty up in the store.”
“Pa says it’s a waste of money.”
“Why don’t you go on up to the cave. My wife will get you what you need. At no cost to you.”
He hoped they actually did have Calomel for the poor woman, although purging a person suffering from diarrhea seemed witless to him.
It seems pretty witless to me, too. If Benjamin had been able to purchase the Calomel, it would not have come with an FDA and warning on the label. None of the 18th century medications did. Some of the stuff they ingested was positively poisonous.
But then, many of the medications our modern day doctors prescribe are toxic too, and in spite of the long list of disclaimers on TV, we use them anyway.
Mercurochrome, for example. When I was a kid, my mom painted all our wounds with it. We called “Indian paint” and wore it gladly. Mercurochrome (the name should have been a hint) contained mercury, which like all heavy metals is extremely toxic to life. But no one thought about it. After all, Mercurochrome had been around since 1918.
But shouldn’t someone have known the danger of mercury? After all, the ancient Romans knew how toxic mercury was. They used to sentence prisoners to work in the mercury mine in Almaden, Spain. It was a death sentence, many dying after only six months of labor there.
But Mercurochrome was around for 80 years before finally in 1998, “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that Mercurochrome, generically known as merbromin, was “not generally recognized as safe and effective” as an over-the-counter antiseptic and forbade its sale across state lines.” (Source)
Back in 1799, the time period of my book How Sweet the Sound, patients’ symptoms were blamed on imbalances in their bodily “humours,” and the physician’s task was to purge them of these excess fluids. One way was to bleed the patient and another was to give them a drug called Calomel “to help relax the interior of the body and to expel disease-causing poisons.”
You can learn more about early doctors and medical treatments at History Is Fun. I thought the listing of a doctor’s medical bag contents was particularly interesting.
American doctors began prescribing Calomel in the mid 1700s. Marc McCutcheon says in his book Everyday Life in the 1800s that Calomel was the most widely used drug throughout the first half of the 19th century, used for everything from venereal disease to malaria and typhoid. And boy did it ever purge! Lewis and Clark’s men called the Calomel capsules they were prescribed for syphilis “Thunderclappers.” (Source)
No telling how many people died of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. And even if it didn’t kill the patient outright, it left them with destroyed teeth and gums. You can see a sad case of Calomel poisoning HERE. And after all the suffering patients went through with Calomel, it did absolutely nothing to cure disease.
And believe it or not, Calomel was still in use in the late 20th century! “Only in the late 1960s did calomel quietly disappear from the U.S. Dispensatory.”
And I’m happy to report that recently they finally took mercury out of children’s vaccines, too. Well, most of them. Something about autism, I think. But not to worry. You can still get your dose of the poison via flu shots, tooth fillings, and tuna.
You find out more about the dangers of mercury on TheStraightDope.com. I love their tagline: Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (It’s taking longer than we thought.)It would be so nice of you to share!