Friday, 14 December 2012

Blue pill - wrong Kingsley

extract, Nelson's Column, page 15,
East Devon Coast & Country, Dec 2012
One for Misattribution Corner. I was just reading East Devon Coast & Country, one of our glossy regional magazines. I recommend it: it's an exception to the usual run of advertorial magazines in actually having good articles, and paying contributors for them. What's more, it puts its issues online.

I did, however, catch one of its regulars in an error in the December 2012 edition, with a reference to a quotation concerning dyspepsia:

How many serious family quarrels, marriages out of spite, alterations of wills, and secessions to the Church of Rome, might have been prevented by a gentle dose of blue pill? What awful instances of chronic dyspepsia are presented to our view by the immortal bard in the characters of Hamlet and Othello! I look with awe on the digestion of such a man as the present King of Naples. Banish dyspepsia and spirituous liquors from society, and you would have no crime, or at least so little that you would not consider it worth mentioning.
I've seen this attributed to Charles Kingsley previously, in thoroughly respectable sources as well as unreliable Internet quotation sites (the author of Nelson's Column, like many others, omits the segment about "secessions to the Church of Rome", presumably out of modern sensibilities). But I only just decided to try to find the precise source.

It turns out not to be written by Charles, but by his somewhat similar brother Henry Kingsley (they were both novelists into Muscular Christianity, though Henry led a rather more adventurous life, for a time involved in gold-prospecting and mounted police work in Australia).

The quotation tracks down to Henry's 1859 novel The Recollections Of Geoffrey Hamlyn, which was begun on an Australian station, Langa-Willi. You can see it at the top of page 270 in this edition of the novel at the Internet Archive (ID cu31924013492974).

The blue pill does, however, get a mention in Charles Kingley's 1855 Glaucus: or, The wonders of the shore, in his description of the digestive arrangements of the sea-cucumber:
For hear it, worn-out epicures, and old Indians who bemoan your livers, this little Holothuria knows a secret which, if he could tell it, you would be glad to buy of him for thousands sterling. To him blue-pill and muriatic acid are superfluous, and travels to German Brunnen a waste of time. Happy Holothuria! who possesses really that secret of everlasting youth, which ancient fable bestowed on the serpent and the eagle. For when his teeth ache, or his digestive organs trouble him, all he has to do is just to cast up forthwith his entire inside, and faisant maigre for a month or so, grow a fresh set, and then eat away as merrily as ever.
The blue pill was not an indigestion remedy in the modern sense of the term, but one rooted in the days of belief in routine purging: a mercury-based laxative. It was nasty stuff: cases weren't unknown of taking a dose for three successive nights causing "fatal salivation" (which seems to have been a chemical burn of mouth and throat). OK, we shouldn't necessarily judge a drug by potential toxicity: for example, strychnine and arsenic had genuine medical use historically, and sometimes we tolerate a quite narrow margin between therapeutic and dangerous dosage even nowadays (for instance, with paracetamol). However, the Victorians were well aware of mercury toxicity, and there was a deal of discussion of benefits vs risks.

Probably the fullest contemporary one is George Gabriel Sigmond's 1840 Mercury, Blue Pill, and Calomel: Their Use and Abuse (see Google Books). It makes interesting reading, particularly the introduction describing the historical uses (often with horrible consequences) of mercury and its compounds. A modern book, Quicksilver: A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury (Richard M. Swiderski, McFarland, 2008) is a very good study of the history, referring, like Sigmond, to the dubious legacy of John Abernethy, an eminent surgeon whose 'dark side' was advocating the blue pill as a cure-all for just about every ailment (see the preview of Chapter 6, Little Blue Pills).

- Ray


  1. Blue pill means such a different thing nowadays :-)

  2. Just so. I was interested to see that East Devon Coast & Country expunged the bit about "secessions to the Church of Rome" too.

  3. The mere mention of Mercury can set the kidney a twitter. There is the sadness of Minimata disease ( where Hg dumped into a Japanese bay got concentrated in the fish food chain leading to dreadful consequences for the locals who ate only fish (documented in a Life Photo essay, the most famous photo, the iconic Tomoko Uemura in her bath, is still on the Internet but the family does not wish it further displayed so I won't link to it.)

    Hg is similar to platinum, as in the anticancer agent cisplatinum. Both Hg and Pt can cause ear and kidney damage presumably by reacting with sulfhydral residues on ion pumps (my hypothesis). The ion pumps in the inner ear set up the mechanical trigger by sound/fluid waves where the hair cells can detect movement of down to one Angstrom. Take that you nanobots!

    The most current controversy is whether Hg causes Autism. And, of course, it was in vaccines since the 1930's to this idiot meme surfaced. Now, thankfully, debunked. With the amount of Hg consumed by the upper crust of the British Empire in the form of blue pills and purgatives, one wonders whether it had a role in losing the Raj. :)

  4. Pt can cause ear and kidney damage

    I'm watching out for those. As you know, with cisplatin they've largely sorted out the kidney side these days - intensive hydration before, during and after - but you can't flush your inner ear. Carboplatin's apparently less ototoxic, and they said today they can switch to it for the last dose (only one more to go now) if I get any hearing problems. But they aren't keen, as the cisplatin is working nicely.

  5. Ray, I am really happy to hear that you are near the end of chemo and that it has not been too toxic. I was really interested in this area back in my days of research:

    Continue to hope things go well. That you have a peaceful Christmas. And you make your music under the old Banyan tree.