Friday, September 11, 2009

Inspecting Lincoln's Medicine Cabinet

There's a story out of Great Britain this week that the British Royal Society of Chemistry is looking to investigate the "Blue Mass" pills used by many in the 19th Century, including Abraham Lincoln. The RSC is hoping to find a pill to examine (and they're offering a reward, in case you happen to have one of these pills lying around).

Used to treat several ailments in the mid-1800s, blue mass featured mercury as a key ingredient. (Now it is known that high levels of mercury are dangerous.) Recent scholars believe that Lincoln used blue mass to combat his melancholy -- though Gore Vidal, in his novel Lincoln, suggests that Lincoln used blue mass as others commonly used it: to deal with constipation.

The most complete scientific analysis of Lincoln and blue mass was written by Dr. Norbert Hirschhorn, a noted physician, in a 2001 article in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. The article is available in full on Hirschhorn's personal website. In Hirschhorn's analysis, the high levels of mercury would have caused erratic personal behavior -- and which was sometimes attributed to Lincoln in the 1850s. Hirschhorn wonders aloud, in his dramatic final paragraph, if Lincoln's choice to stop taking blue mass at the start of his presidency had a significant effect on history:
If blue pills prompted Abraham Lincoln's remarkable behavior in the decade before he went to the White House, then his insightful decision to stop taking them may have been crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. Imagine a President Lincoln impaired by the bewildering effect of mercury poisoning while trying to cope with political intrigue, military reversals, the incompetence of his generals, and his own personal tragedies. His calm steadiness was at least as necessary in preserving the Union, it may be argued, as battlefield decisions, military appointments, or political strategies that history records as important for the success of the Federal cause. (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, summer 2001, vol. 44, no. 3, p. 329)
I'm not qualified to judge much of the biology, but I find the discussion fascinating. Could the presence or lack of a little pill in someone's medicine chest affect the course of history? Not only are such discussion interesting cocktail party conversations, but sometimes they can get at the heart of the study of history -- the answer to the deeper questions behind "What Happened?" "Why Did it Happen?"

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