The madness of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time. His achievements were impressive he explained the nature of light and colour he established the theory of gravity and deduced how the solar system works he devised the laws of motion and he invented an early form of differential calculus. What is less well known is that he spent most of his time when he was Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, as an alchemist. When, in 1940, the economist John Maynard Keynes opened...

Ye poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury

The most famous murder committed with mercury was that of the poet Thomas Overbury. He survived four attempts to poison him and was only killed when he was given an enema containing corrosive sublimate. He was dead within hours. Rapid death from mercury can occur and there are cases on record of people dying of heart failure after being given a mercury-based medicine. Clearly some people are particularly sensitive to this metal, but Overbury was not one of them. He had already survived at least...

The poisoning of George III

During his long reign from 1760 to 1820, King George III had several attacks of an unusual illness. Most of these were mild, but some of them involved mental disturbances that alarmed his family and his Government ministers. The minor illnesses of 1762, 1790, and 1795, were free from such madness, as was the more serious attack of 1765 when he was 26 years old. However, the attacks of 1788, 1801, 1804, and 1810 were all accompanied by alarming mental disturbances. The illness of 1788 was the...

The medical uses and commercial abuses of thallium

Thallium salts were once part of the medical pharmacopoeia, and used to remove hair. This unusual effect of thallium was discovered by accident in the 1890s when thallium was tested on tuberculosis patients as a cure for night sweats. It didn't stop them having them, but their hair fell out. Dr R. J. Sabourand, the chief dermatologist at the St Louis Hospital in Paris, reported this side effect in 1898 for a while he used it specifically to remove body hair from those with ringworm but gave up...

Thallium in the human body

We all have a little thallium in our body, probably no more than half a milligram, and the level in blood is only 0.5 ppb. The average person takes in about 2 g of thallium a day as part of his or her diet this accumulates in the body over time and most ends up in the skeleton. Indeed thallium finds its way into all tissues except fat, and it can even pass the placental barrier. There is no biological role for thallium although some marine organisms appear deliberately to concentrate it, but...

The strange death of King Charles II

King Charles II was not an alchemist as such, but he was very interested in science and especially 'chymistry'. He had a laboratory built in the basement of his palace at Westminster and there, with the aid of one or two assistants, he spent time smelting and refining mercury, and indeed he became accomplished in the experimental techniques of the alchemists. Charles had his laboratory staff extract mercury from cinnabar and even distil it. No doubt his aim was to transmute base metals into...

The poisonings of Handel and Beethoven

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was the first of the great entrepreneurial composers. Born in Halle, Germany, he was eventually appointed musician to the court of the Elector of Hanover, and when the Elector became King George I of England Handel moved with him and lived the rest of his life in London, producing a stream of operas and oratorios. His most popular work was the Messiah, which was premiered in 1742. This * Although it is not recorded, it is more than likely that those exposed...

Organomercury and autism

Autism is a distressing condition and five children in every 10000 are afflicted with it, and of these the ratio of 4 boys to 1 girl.* What causes a seemingly normal baby to develop autism is still unknown, but many in the USA believe that mercury is the cause. In the late 1990s it was accused of causing attention deficit syndrome, stammering, and especially autism. Some thought that thimerosal was to blame. This is a mercury-containing antibacterial agent which was added to vaccines to...