J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Friday, February 10, 2012

Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills

This is a little outside my self-imposed period, but it’s too good to ignore. From Romeo Vitelli’s Providentia blog:
Even today, archaeologists tracing the campsites used by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their historic expedition across the Great Plains from 1804 to 1806 can still rely on the relatively high mercury deposits to be found in the soil where the explorers dug their latrines. According to Sam Kean and his excellent book, The Disappearing Spoon, not only did Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition armed with microscopes, compasses, three mercury thermometers, and other scientific instruments, they also carried more than six hundred mercury laxatives, each four times the size of an aspirin, to be used for any digestive problems that they might encounter along the way.

The laxatives, marketed under the name of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, were supplied by Meriwether Lewis’ chief medical advisor and the foremost health authority for the still-growing United States, Dr. Benjamin Rush.
The rest of that posting discusses Rush’s eminence as a physician in the early republic. Vitelli’s Part 2 mainly discusses Rush’s ideas on mental illness and how he had to treat his own son.


Questionable Advice said...

You're right, that's too good to ignore! I love the idea that a quack medicine is helping modern archaeologists.

G. Lovely said...

The use of mercury as a stimulant laxative wasn't quackery in the 1800's, or now. It works, and mercury compounds are still found in some modern laxatives, though obviously the risks of long term use likely outweigh any possible benefits.