Mercury oxide (calomel) combined with bleeding was the preferred treatment for almost all illness by the first US Surgeon General and Chief Doctor Benjamin Rush , and especially for yellow fever, which unknown at the time, is spread by mosquitoes. An epidemic of yellow fever, along with Surgeon General Benjamin Rush's promotion of calomel (and bleeding 4/5ths of a patient's blood), decimated one quarter of the population of Philadelphia in the summer of 1793.
At the time, Philadelphia was the capital city of the federal government, and the entire government, including Washington, Jefferson and Adams all went to Washington DC before the buildings and roads were even finished to escape the epidemic.
A small minority of doctors, who had success with recommendations of rest, good food, fresh air and moving away from the swamps around the city, fought against the bleeding and mercury dosing at the time, but were quite unsuccessful at getting the practices stopped. The powerful Dr. Rush and the other leading doctors claimed that they were absolutely correct and were saving lives, and called those who disagreed with them killers and murderers of the innocent, who were withholding life saving treatments. They maintained until their deaths that the proof calomel and bleeding treatments worked was that the outbreak of yellow fever ended in November (coincident with the first frosts and the disappearance of mosquitoes until the next spring).
In 1805, Thomas Jefferson sent Northwest Expedition explorers, Lewis and Clark, to see Dr. Rush for medical advice for their upcoming expedition to explore the American Northwest territories. Rush gave them several "bleeders" for slicing veins open, and a box full of Calomel for the trip, the only medical supplies they carried along.
The following popular song (to the tune of "Oh Tannenbaum") from the mid 19th C. concerns calomel. Even so, many physicians continued to prescribe it until the 1930's.
"Ye doctors all of every rank
With their long bills that break the bank,
Of wisdom's learning, art, and skill
Seems all composed of calomel.
Since calomel has been their toast,
How many patients have they lost,
How many hundreds have they killed,
Or poisoned with their calomel.
lf any fatal wretch be sick
Go call the doctor, haste, be quick,
The doctor comes with drop and pill
But don't forget his calomel.
He enters, by the bed he stands,
He takes the patient hy the hand,
Looks wise, sits down his pulse to feel
And then takes out his calomel.
Next, turning to the patient's wife,
He calls for paper and a knife.
" l think your husband would do well
To take a dose of calomel."
The man grows worse, grows bad indeed
" Go call the doctor, ride with speed."
The doctor comes, the wife to tell
To double the dose of calomel.
The man begins in death to groan,
The fatal job for him is done,
The soul must go to heaven or hell,
A sacrifice to calomel.
The doctors of the present day
Mind not what an old woman say,
Nor do they mind me when l tell
I am no friend to calomel.
Well, if I must resign my breath,
Pray let me die a natural death
And if I must bid all farewell,
Don't hurry me with calomel.
[from: American Ballads and Songs]
Michael Geiger is a member of the board of directors of HEAL San Diego