The Poisonous Laxative That Built America

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory, which expanded the US to the Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark and the rest of their crew traveled 8,000 miles in two years. Along the way, they survived on what food they could find or shoot. That meant lots of deer, elk, and bison meat. What they didn't eat immediately was dried, smoked, and salted for later, and then washed down with lots of whiskey.  

But eating that much dried meat will back you up like nobody’s business, and for that, they had a supply of 1,300 pills about four times the size of an aspirin that contained none other than the wonder drug of the day: mercury. They got the stash from a doctor named Benjamin Rush, a good friend of Thomas Jefferson’s from back when they signed the Declaration of Independence together in Philly.

Rush, a preeminent physician of the day, prescribed an early 1800s-era cure-all called calomel, a frighteningly effective purgative with a high dose of mercury chloride. He’d made his own version, which Lewis and Clark referenced in their journals as Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills. They were believed to empty excessive bile, which was thought to cause any number of ailments.

Mercury could ease constipation, and also syphilis, which was rampant in the expedition (although it wasn't a cure). But it was also really dangerous to the user. The Lewis and Clark expedition ingested so much mercury that scientists are using it to confirm whether a campsite was actually used during that historic trip. Read about the toilet woes of Lewis and Clark at Mel magazine.  -via Digg

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