Arsenic was known as both a poison and a medicine for thousands of years. We have all read famous stories of its use in poisoning, such as the Roman Emperor Nero using it to poison his stepbrother. Its use in medicine is not as well-known. In Chinese medicine, where it is called pi shuang, it has been used for medicinal purposes for almost 2500 years, for example, and was a very common ingredient in British and American patent medicines of the 1800’s. Its use is not exclusive to older times, however.
The California Department of Health Services studied 260 Asian patent medicines and found arsenic in 36 of them. It was undeclared as an ingredient. The average concentration of arsenic was reported to be 14,553 parts per million. that is well over the 30 million parts per million that is recommended to be the safe level.
There have been similar studies of Ayurvedic medicine sold both in the United States and India. A large percentage of these have been found to contain arsenic, lead, mercury, or other heavy metals.
In 2008, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, along with the FDA, published a report of a search of websites selling traditional Ayurvedic herbs, formulas, and ingredients. They found 25 websites and identified 673 products. 273 of these were randomly selected and purchased during the months of August through October 2005. 21 percent of them were found to contain lead, mercury, or arsenic.
Even while arsenic was used as a medicine, quite openly, it was known to be fatal in large doses. When questioned in legal proceedings, a frequent argument was that the “dose makes the poison” and that arsenic was a poison in large doses but a medicine in small doses. This, of course, presupposed that arsenic was indeed a medicine, seriously abusing the old adage. Still, you can understand the thinking and it is true that many things that are poison at large doses are effective medicine in small enough doses. In fact, this is true of pretty much any drug you can imagine, as well as many other innocuous and every-day substances. Drugs, in particular, have a therapeutic window in which they are an effective treatment. Below this window they are useless, and above it they are potentially toxic. Arsenic should not have automatically have been though to be any different. It kills bad germs and parasites outside the body, might it not do the same inside the body? The failure was in understanding how arsenic poisoning worked.
That is, if you have a headache and take an NSAID like ibuprofen, the drug is able to enter the bloodstream and do its work to relieve your pain. Then, the body is very capable of getting rid of it. With arsenic and other heavy metals, things are a bit different. They build up in the body, causing chronic, and eventually fatal poisoning if left unchecked. But, there was more than just a simple leap to using arsenic to kill bodily parasites in the body. There were other observations that fueled its use. In fact, these same types of superficial observations fueled the use of many agents in the patent medicine days.
I’ll give you an example before we move on. Cocaine was just as widespread as arsenic in patent medicines. What type of superficial observation might lead on to thinking cocaine was good for you? You guessed it! Cocaine made you feel good. It increased energy. It cured the ‘blahs.’ How can something that increased your vitality not be good for you?
Unlike cocaine, however, arsenic was also known to be a good preservative for woods and other materials. We see a clue in this preservative quality.
It may seem ridiculous, but there is something to the notion of a heavy metal like arsenic being used to treat infections, wounds, etc. The same antimicrobial action that it has on other organic materials, it can have on us. So, using arsenic to treat abscesses or open or infected wounds is not exactly a dumb idea, it’s just not good science. The arsenic can be absorbed into the blood stream, and have harmful effects. Bleach would also be a great antimicrobial, but it wouldn’t be a good idea to pour chlorine bleach over infected wounds.
This “preservative” quality of arsenic was taken so far that in Victorian England, women used a preparation of arsenic, vinegar, and chalk to whiten their skin. The arsenic was there to preserve their beauty be preventing wrinkles and other signs of aging. If a tiny amount of the arsenic was able to be absorbed into the bloodstream during daily continued use, the result would be a very ill woman, if not a dead one.
There were several “Arsenic Complexion Wafer” patent medicine products, as well, such as Dr. Campbell’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers and Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers, both marketed to women. Of course, these were claimed to do more than just improve your complexion. There was also a Fould’s Standard Arsenic Wafers and a Fould’s Medicated Arsenic Soap.
Arsenic was the preferred treatment for syphilis for many years. It was also thought to treat malaria, leukemia, and chorea. One type of arsenic preparation that became a popular type of patent medicine of the late 1800’s on into the early 1900s’ was Fowler’s solution, which was sold as a treatment for syphilis as well as a general tonic. Fowler’s solution was not a brand of patent medicine but rather a formula containing 1% potassium arsenate, proposed by Thomas Fowler in 1786. Arsenic was also available in many other forms, including tablets.
Many physicians of the time embraced the use of arsenic preparations to treat these diseases, often giving arsenic by hypodermic injection. It was even supposed that since large doses of arsenic by mouth produced violent gastric upset, as well as other terrible symptoms, it was “safer” to inject it subcutaneously, thus bypassing the unpleasant vomiting.
However, these unpleasant side-effects only occurred when doctors were aggressive in giving arsenic orally. When small doses were used and spread over time, mild poisoning occurred. One of the initial signs of this poisoning was a healthy-seeming glow to the skin. Arsenic causes bleeding from the capillaries in the face. The result of this is a nice rosy cheek. Conclusion: arsenic increases health and vigor.
You may have found a flaw, however, in the idea that all medicines that work are harmless at typical doses. This is obviously not true. Chemotherapy is often effective, but also harmful not only to cancer cells but healthy cells. Chemotherapy, while treating cancer, is also toxic to the body. Often, the benefit outweighs the risk. The same is true of many drugs. Those same physicians of the 1800’s who were trying to figure out how to use arsenic safely weren’t actually on the wrong track. They understood that for some of these deadly diseases, a toxic drug might remain toxic, but if it used in careful and controlled ways, it may still be quite effective. It is better to be temporarily poisoned by arsenic, and then recover, if possible, than to die from syphilis, malaria, etc. In these cases, other drugs have supplanted arsenic because of their lack of harmful effects. For example, penicillin shoved aside arsenic and many other medicines. But for other diseases, there is no simple miracle such as penicillin (at least not yet). With that in mind, even today arsenic is still used in chemotherapy as well as in other treatments.