Arsenic as a panacea in Victorian times

In Victorian society it was widely believed that arsenic could actually help to treat a myriad of problems and some doctors even prescribed it as a cure for conditions including malaria, rheumatism, worms and morning sickness.

Their belief in the medicinal properties of arsenic was based on the Medieval notion that the body was out of kilter during illness and that the violent symptoms it produced could somehow shock it back into balance.
For example, the Tanjore pill - a varying mixture of arsenic, mercury and black pepper - was a popular anti-venom among British forces in India[1]. Dr Livingstone (1813-1873) announced, from the very heart of Africa, that arsenic seemed to counter the bite of the tsetse fly. To this day, some African people believe in the therapeutic effects of the poison[2].

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) took arsenic to treat his eczema while at university, something that could even explain his lifetime of documented ill-health. Physicians also maintained that it could cure asthma, thus directing patients to smoke pipes in which tobacco was mixed with the lethal poison. Today we know that even low-level arsenic exposure has deleterious respiratory effects[3].

Yes, very small doses of arsenic can stimulate circulation and increase weight gain. There was great excitement in 1851 when a Viennese medical journal reported on the sexual benefits which arsenic consumption was supposed to have brought the peasantry of Styria (German: Steiermark) - a once remote mountainous region in Austria[4]. The Styrians commonly swallowed quantities well above the lethal dose, but they ingested it in solid lumps which passed almost intact through their digestive tracts. Just enough was absorbed to increase blood flow, giving the women a rosy-cheeked glow and the men an increased libido, resulting in an inordinate number of illegitimate children in the region.
British manufacturers began selling an array of beauty products for women, including Dr Simms Arsenic Complexion Wafers and Medicated Arsenic Soap, with predictable results. One woman who took arsenic to get rid of spots on her face died within a few days. Arsenic-based shampoos were said to reverse baldness, but left hundreds of embarrassed users with painfully inflamed scalps.

As for claims that arsenic might work as some kind of Victorian Viagra, it was reported that one British man had adopted the Styrian practice and become notorious for his 'amorous propensities' - only to die shortly afterwards. Few were as foolish as him, but even those who did not use arsenic found it was a near-inescapable hazard in 19th-century society. For example, wallpaper proved particularly hazardous.

[1] Raman et al: The arsenic and mercury-containing Tanjore pills used in treating snake bites in the 18th century Madras Presidency in Current Science – 2014. See here.
[2] Eperon et al: Treatment options for second-stage gambiense human African trypanosomiasis in Expert Review of Anti-infective Therapy – 2014
[3] Das et al: Chronic low-level arsenic exposure reduces lung function in male population without skin lesions in International Journal of Public Health – 2014
[4] Wallau: The Phenomenon of the Styrian Arsenic Eaters from the Perspective of Literature, Chemistry, Toxicology, and History of Science-"Strong Poison" or "Simple-Minded Reasoning"? in Angewandte Chemie 2014

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