Thursday, May 28, 2015

Arsenic as medicine

The catalogue of complaints presumed vulnerable to the Solutio Mineralis could be continued at some length, but it should already be clear how by the 18880s a doctor couldhave come to the conclusion that 'if a law were passed compelling physicians to confine themselves to two remedies only in their entire practice, arsenic would my choise for one, opium for the other.'
James C. Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), pp. 238-39

Karl Marx stopped taking arsenic because it 'dulls my mind too much, and I needed to keep my wits about me'.
Id., pp. 249-50

Dyspepsia was just a fancy way of saying indigestion, but it was interpreted at the time as a wide-reaching condition that could include such diverse symptoms as nausea, vomiting, flatulence, diarrhoea, insomnia, headache, numbness of the extremities, anxiety, and depression. As vague as any malaise could be, dyspepsia was an almost irresistible lable for people to apply to whatever mysterious thing was ailing them. Those pursuing the life of the mind seem to have been especially prone to the complaint: Huxley, Spencer, Carlyle, George Eliot, and Robert Browning were just a few of the intellectuals tortured by dyspeptic attacks. But the symptoms of dyspepsia were such a close match with the effects of arsenic, and so many sick people were treated with arsenic, that a persuasive argument can be made that many dyspeptics were in fact the victims of arsenical medication. Possibly the most pre-eminent such case was Darwin. The naturalist's nearly lifelong poor health has been variously diagnosed as a physical problem (malaria, ulcer, gout, even lingering effects from seasickness experienced on the Beagle voyages) or a psychological one (hypochondria stemming from resentment of a domineering father). Darwin's symptoms, however, duplicated many of thsoe connected to Fowler's solution (right down to the 'brown out-of-doors complexion' described by his daughter even after he ceased spending time outdoors), and he began taking arsenic to treat eczema as early as his university days. Thus, as John Winslow has proposed, Darwin's Victorian Malady, his dyspepsia, may well have been a case of 'Fowler's disease'.
Id., pp. 250-51.

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