Poisons and poisonous plants have been utilized for centuries in medications. A Persian physician in the tenth century first discovered that poisons such as mercury could be employed as curatives, and not just on the tip of an arrow to kill your enemy. But poisons had to be managed carefully.
Rosy periwinkle is also toxic to eat. However, in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, it’s used to treat diabetes and constipation.
More well known is the Opium poppy, used to make morphine (and unfortunately heroin-the killer of many an addict). Morphine is invaluable as a pain reliever for the sickest of patients. Small doses of other deadly toxins such as henbane, hemlock and mandrake have been employed to ease the pain of surgeries. But a dose slightly too high would kill the patient.
In Shakespeare’s time, poisonous extracts were added to cough medicines. Opiates were common in cough remedies, mainly for sedation. Mrs. Cotton in the seventeenth century suggested a mixture of vinegar, salad oil, liquorice, treacle, and tincture of opium when “the cough is troublesome.”
No one yet understood the addictive nature of these drugs—if the patient lived to find out.
The chemical element mercury, another toxin, was used starting in the 1500’s to treat syphilis.
Well into the twentieth century, mercury was an ingredient in purgatives and infant’s teething powder.
Arsenic is another poison that was commonly added to medications. A chemical element, arsenic is found in many minerals. In the 18th to 20th centuries, arsenic compounds, such as arsphenamine (by Paul Ehrlich, 1854-1915) and arsenic trioxide (by Thomas Fowler, 18th c.) were popular. Arsphenamine was also used to treat syphilis. Arsenic trioxide was recommended for the treatment of cancer and psoriasis.
Numerous people suffered adverse effects or died after the ingestion of these lethal ingredients.
In my recent release, The Apothecary’s Widow, arsenic is found in the tinctures used to treat the ague of Lady Pentreath. Unfortunately, arsenic is not one of the ingredients listed in that cure, and never in such a large dose. Who murdered Lady Pentreath, her miserable husband, Branek, or the apothecary Jenna who prepared the medicines, a widow about to be evicted from her shop, which is owned by the Pentreaths? A corrupt constable threatens to send them both to the gallows.
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The Power of Poison: Poison as Medicine, the American Museum of Natural History
William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772)