What is the historical background of mercury toxicity?

Updated: Nov 05, 2018
  • Author: David A Olson, MD; Chief Editor: Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS  more...
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Answer

For centuries, mercury was an essential part of many different medicines, such as diuretics, antibacterial agents, antiseptics, and laxatives. In the late 18th century, antisyphilitic agents contained mercury. It was during the 1800s that the phrase "mad as a hatter" was coined, owing to the effects of chronic mercury exposure in the hat-making industry, where the metal was used in the manufacturing process.

In 1889, Charcot, in his Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System, attributed some rapid oscillatory tremors to mercury exposure. [1]

In Wilson's classic textbook of neurology, published in 1940, Wilson concurred with Charcot's attribution of tremors to mercury poisoning, but also described mercury-induced cognitive impairments, such as inattention, excitement, and hallucinosis. [2]


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