UK lab reveals shocking mercury level in Lincoln's blue pills

22 March 2010

The Royal Society of Chemistry is the first organisation to unearth an actual sample of the notorious blue pills, believed to have goaded President Lincoln to wild rages of temper, and to analyse their shockingly high mercury content.

The pills were discovered in a Devon museum four weeks ago after the RSC's call in September for authentic Blue Mass pills to have them analysed to mark this year's anniversary of Lincoln becoming President of the United States.

A British specialist laboratory has measured the mercury content in the anti-depression pills, discovered in a mid-Victorian medicine chest from the Park Pharmacy Trust's collection.

The findings confirm suspicions that the legendary 'Blue Mass' pills contained a dangerous level of mercury, leading to the President ingesting between 80-120 times the World Health Organisation acceptable daily intake, which may explain his notorious bouts of verbal and physical rage directed against White House staff.

P S Analytical, the laboratory in Kent where the analysis was performed last week, specialises in mercury, arsenic, selenium and antimony measurement and detection.

Its International Sales Manager, Paul Stockwell, said: "At P S Analytical we both use and manufacture the specialist equipment needed to measure mercury at lower and lower levels, most of our work is for modern industrial or commercial applications at part per billion or part per trillion levels so it was quite an intriguing challenge to look at pills that are so mysterious and about a century and a half old."

The Orpington company's Senior Applications Chemist, Dr Bin Chen, carried out the initial test and he said afterwards: "We were amazed that we found 33.6 0.3% mercury in the pill. To think that the President was meant to be taking two of them a day is appalling."

The box and pills (pictured in the attachment above) were found accidentally by Dr Jan Knight, Chairman of the Park Pharmacy Trust, Plymouth who said:

"I was showing someone some of the items in our collection when I discovered a ceramic pot containing Blue Pill mass in a drawer in a travelling medicine box. We also found in the box a two-part wooden device, which can be seen in one of the photos. 

"We think this might have been used for scooping up a portion of the Blue Mass and putting it into the second tube for transportation. This is pure speculation and we hope you might be able to tell us more."

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 civil war, he became renowned and respected for his calmness under pressure.

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 solution was normally injected alongside morphine: even so, few patients had the stamina to persist with such a regime."

Leading British toxicologist Dr John Hoskins said today: "UK blue mass recipes were commonly one part mercury with two parts confection of roses (rose petals steeped in rosewater with honey and sugar) and liquorice root.

"The U.S. Pharmacopoeia gives a slightly different recipe which contains mercury (33 parts), powdered liquorice (5 parts), althaea (root of the marshmallow)(25 parts), glycerin (3 parts), honey of rose (34 parts), so that 3 grains contain 1 of mercury.

"The analysis made shows that ratio of one third mercury to other compounds - so the material had not lost mercury over time.

"Doses varied considerably; some say the mass was formed into pills of about 48 grains in weight ( a little over 3 g) of which the recommended dose was one pill two or three times a day - maybe a gram of mercury.

"Compare this with the WHO recommendations in 2003 that safe intake levels for mercury in food are less than 1.6 g per kg of body weight per week."

"Liquid mercury has little toxicity since it is poorly absorbed from the g.i. tract. This is why swallowing mercury from, say, a broken thermometer, is not particularly dangerous. Animal data indicate that less than 0.01% of ingested mercury is absorbed through the intact g.i. tract. 

"However, it is a metal with a high vapour pressure and in humans, approximately 80% of mercury vapour inhaled is absorbed via the respiratory tract from where it enters the blood and can cross the blood/brain barrier when it is ionised and trapped. 

"It is highly poisonous in the body, producing the condition known as mercurialism. 

"Target organs include the central nervous system, endocrine system, kidneys and others and it adversely affects the mouth, gums, and teeth. Symptoms of acute intoxication include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, oral and pharyngeal pain, uraemia, dehydration, diarrhoea and shock. 

"Manifestations of chronic poisoning include hypersalivation, loosening of teeth, diarrhoea, vertigo, depression, intention tremor, and stomatitis all sometimes called "The Mad Hatter Syndrome".

Related Link

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

10 September 2009

The RSC wants to analyse the mercury-based medicine used by Lincoln

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