Search for Blue Mass medicine that made Abraham Lincoln lose his cool

10 September 2009

To mark the 200th anniversary year of the birth of Abraham Lincoln Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) wants to analyse the mercury-based medicine thought by some to have been responsible for the President's notorious bouts of rage in the decade before the American civil war.

But the society first needs to track down some of the legendary Victorian "Blue Mass" concoction and to that end is offering a reward of 200 for information that results in some of it being pinpointed by the end of November.

Blue Mass, sometimes known as "Blue Pills", was used widely, often ineffectively, for a range of 19th century ailments, including toothache, constipation, childbirth pains, parasitic infestation and tuberculosis.

The president was known to have used the remedy in pill form to relieve what was described as melancholy, as he lived in what a contemporary described as a "cave of gloom".

During the 1850s Lincoln, by nature a friendly and balanced person, was known for flying into towering rages which sometimes took on a physically violent manifestation, on one occasion grasping and shaking a politician until his "teeth chattered".

At the outset of the war he determined to abandon the blue mass pills because, he said, they "made him cross".

Thereafter, while running the country torn by war, he became renowned and respected for his unflappability and calmness under pressure.

The main ingredient of Blue Mass was mercury, now know to be toxic but it also contained glycerol, rose honey, and Althea.

If anybody or any organisation has Blue Mass or 19th century Blue Pills they should notify the RSC, which would arrange for safe collection of the material.

Alan Dronsfield of the RSC's Historical Group, who was one three authors of a paper concerning arsenic and mercury as cures for the "Great Pox" (syphilis) says of mercury being taken up by the body: "Various routes were used: skin absorption, vapour inhalation, injections of  'grey oil', mercury dispersed in lanolin and liquid paraffin, and by mouth, as  "Blue Pills", consisting of a suspension of the metal in liquorice, but having remarkably little positive effect. 

"In the second half of the 19th century there was a move towards the use of compounds of mercury, administered by injection, so painful that the Hg2Cl2 solution was normally injected alongside morphine: even so, few patients had the stamina to persist with such a regime."

The 16th century humanist writer Ulrich von Hutten described one of his experiences: "Patients were shut in a 'stew', a small steam room, for 20 or 30 days at a time. Seated or lying down they were spread from head to foot with a mercury-based ointment, swathed in blankets and left until the sweat poured down. 

"They often fainted from the heat. Disgusting secretions issued from their mouths and noses; sores filled their cheeks and lips.often their teeth fell out. Everything stank."

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