Emperor Qin and his immortality elixir. Scene from American Museum of Natual History
Apparently, I’m dense! At least that’s what my friend told me. Some friend eh? But not only has he apprised me of this insight, he’s also informed several hundred people at international scientific conferences of the fact. Now I could take offense at this assertion, which some may see as a criticism of my character, but in fact it’s a big compliment. You see my friend is Dr. Hector Rasgado-Flores, who in addition to being an outstanding scientist, is also an accomplished composer. Not too long ago, Hector was approached by El Colegio Nacional (México) to compose as suite of music called “The Elements” to attract students to study chemistry. Hector dedicated each element in the suite to various individuals and I was honored with mercury. It’s true, mercury is quite dense, but its also the only metal that’s a liquid at room temperature. I have fond memories of playing with globs of mercury in high school science labs when a mercury thermometer “accidently” got broken to spill its contents onto the wooden desktops. Here it was apparent why mercury was also known by its other name, quicksilver, due to mercury’s silver luster and the old definition of “quick” which meant alive.
Emperor Qin was an impressive individual by any estimation. The first ruler of a united China, and the builder of the Great Wall of China. Since he was understandably proud of his accomplishments, Qin wished to live forever, and be the eternal Emperor of China. Since this is not the natural state of affairs, Qin sent expeditions far and wide to search for potions and elixirs that would grant him immortality. According to legend, Qin regularly consumed mercury to achieve his goal. We now know that prolonged exposure to mercury can have negative effects on health, and Qin died in 210 BC, whether from mercury poisoning or other causes will never likely be known. Fitting his importance, Qin was buried with the now famous Terracotta Army of 8,000 life-sized clay figures and 500 clay horses to help him rule in the afterlife. Qin’s tomb was also rumored to contain a detailed replica of his empire, with flowing rivers made from liquid mercury.
Certainly, Emperor Qin was not alone in his assertion of the health-giving properties of mercury, and many medicines contained mercury were marketed to the public. Among the famous proponents of mercury’s health benefits were noted author Louisa May Alcott, and President Abraham Lincoln. Remarkably, up until 1948, mercury was used as a pain killer in teething powder for babies, until it was realized that it was in fact making children quite ill. The route of entry of mercury into the body makes a big difference in experienced symptoms. Mercury is not readily absorbed by the intestines, and so a large amount must be ingested to cause symptoms. Such is not the case for inhalation of mercury vapor. Mercury had been used in the treatment of syphilis for a few hundred years, but by the late nineteenth century, the cure was as equally debilitating as the disease, with mercury treatments killing as many patients as those it cured of syphilis. Patients died of heart failure, dehydration and suffocation as they inhaled mercury fumes, but even if they managed to survive, other symptoms typical of mercury poisoning, including loss of hair and teeth, uncontrollable drooling, depression and other neurological problems, along with kidney and liver failure would take their toll. Inhalation of mercury vapor was not restricted to those seeking a cure for syphilis, it was an occupational hazard for those in the felt hat industry, who were continually exposed to devastating mercury in each breath. The destructive neurological effects are thought to be the basis of Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Hatter” in Alice in Wonderland.
There must be something going on in Germany that has given killers a fixation on mercury as a murder weapon. In March, 2019, a German man was sentenced to life imprisonment for poisoning his co-worker’s lunch. The 57-year-old defendant, known only as Klaus O, due to Germany’s privacy laws, was seen sprinkling mercury onto his colleague’s sandwich. After eating his mercury sandwich, the co-worker slipped into a coma and suffered permanent brain damage. Other co-workers now suffer from chronic kidney damage from eating sandwiches seasoned with lead and cadmium. Klaus’s motives remain unclear, as he refused to utter a single word during the trial. An even more bizarre tail of murder by mercury occurred in the city of Hannover in Germany. The victim, who cannot be named for privacy reasons, was a 40-year-old male, who was apparently walking through Hannover, when a man carrying an umbrella approached him from behind and stabbed him in the buttocks with the point of the umbrella. The victim told police that his attacker was of slim build and had a band-aid on his face. Not long after meeting with the police, the victim was diagnosed with massive mercury poisoning, and fell into a coma and subsequently died. The assailant and his motives remain a mystery.
Oh, I almost forgot, for those wishing to hear “Mercury” and indeed the entire “Elements” suite, Hector’s music can be found on Youtube.