Calomel: A Poison Once the Standard for Medical Treatment

Many of you who follow this blog are parents and grandparents. Are we not glad that this medicine is no longer a part of our children’s teething issues? Read on…

From Evidence Based Science we learn that Calomel was once considered standard medicine.
It may be hard to believe now, but this was considered good science at one time, and was used for teething with babies. It was called Calomel, but it is Mercury.

Medical uses for calomel were common well into the nineteenth century. It acts as a purgative and kills bacteria (and also does irreversible damage to their human hosts). Some treatments are of historical interest. The three physicians atttending Gen. Washington’s final hours administered calomel to the dying President. Lewis and Clark carried it on their expedition and used it to treat their men’s STD’s. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) suffered from its effects. Even in the present decade several cases of mercury poisoning have been attributed to facial cremes containing calomel. Such cremes are banned in the United States because mercury is readily absorbed through the skin.

The Encyclopedia Britannica provides the following information regarding calomel

Alternate titles: horn mercury; mercurous chloride; mercury(I) chloride

Calomel (Hg2Cl2), also called mercurous chloride or mercury(I) chloride, a very heavy, soft, white, odourless, and tasteless halide mineral formed by the alteration of other mercury minerals, such as cinnabar or amalgams. Calomel is found together with native mercury, cinnabar, calcite, limonite, and clay at Moschellandsberg, Germany; Zimapán, Mexico; and Brewster County, Texas, U.S. 

Once the most popular of cathartics, calomel has been used in medicine since the 16th century. The recognition of its potential toxicity (because of disassociation into mercury and mercuric chloride), together with the development of superior and safer cathartics, led to a decline in its use in internal medicine. It has found application in certain insecticides and fungicides, however. The compound is also used in the construction of calomel electrodes for potentiometric titration (a chemical technique designed to measure the potential between two electrical conductors in a medium such as an electrolyte solution).

From Vancouver’s The Herb Museum website we find an “advert” for a wintergreen flavored calomel from Parke, Davis & Co out of Detroit, Michigan. The information describes many uses for calomel. 

LatestGuppy 052 copyMercury Chloride
Merck- Mercurous-C.P.
Calomel; Mild Mercury Chloride; Mercury Subchloride, or Monochloride, or Protochloride.
Actions: Cathartic; Alter. ; Diuretic; Antiseptic; Anthelmintic.
Uses: Detecting cocaine, pilocrpine, SCN, & free alkali; I; also in electrolysis as the calomel electrode.
Uses (Internal): constipation, incubation period of infectious disease, cholera, dysentery, cardiac dropsy, pleurisy, malign. fever, malaria, syphilis, gout, worms, cholelithiasis, mitral insufficiency, eclampsia gravidarum
Uses (External): smallpox pitting, pruritus, diphtheria, syphilitic ulcers, myiasis, membrane croup (by fumigation), condylomata, warts.
Effect of dose not in proportion to size. Small, well-triturated doses better than large coarse ones. Larger doses in proportion to age of children than w.o. medicine.
Caution: Keep in the dark.
-pp. 324-325, Merck’s Index: Fourth Edition (1930)

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in American History, British history, Great Britain, medicine, Regency era, Uncategorized, Victorian era and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Calomel: A Poison Once the Standard for Medical Treatment

  1. Very informative, Regina! Science and medicine have certainly come a long way. Knowing how quickly knowledge advances, I shudder to think what future generations will have to say about our present-day practices!

    • It frightens me, Mimi, to realize this medicine was still used in the 20th Century. I used to teach a science fiction unit, where the fiction could some day become fact. Books such as “Arm of the Starfish” were included. What if we could regenerate a new arm like the starfish? Science is very close.

  2. junewilliams7 says:

    yikes! I was thinking that “calomel” sounds like “calamine” as in the lotion used to treat the itching from poison ivy and chicken pox. Wrong!!! Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. Thanks for the great article, Regina! I’ve spent some time reading Buchannan’s medical textbook and it makes fascinating and grim reading. nearly every disease was caused by eating too heavily or exposing oneself to the cold night air – and every cure was beeding, purgation and blistering plasters. I wonder how we didn’t become extinct 🙂
    And it does beg the question how they’ll shudder at our medical principles and practices, 200 years on.

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