Antimony Pill: The Everlasting Pill

Feb 29, 2024 0 comments

Antimony—the soft, lustrous gray metal—has many industrial uses such as in the preparation of flame-retarding compounds and in the manufacture of alloys. The metal and its compounds has also been used since ancient times for various medical treatment. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, used grounded stibnite, a mineral containing antimony, as eyeliner and mascara due to its blackish color. Over the centuries, many different cultures including the Romans and the Greeks have held many bizarre beliefs regarding antimony and its properties leading to its use and sometimes misuse in a variety of different ways.

Antimony crystal. Photo credit: Depositphotos

Antimony's history traces back to ancient civilizations, with records suggesting its knowledge among the Chaldeans as early as 4000 BC. Finely powdered stibnite, called kohl, was used as a cosmetic both in ancient times and in India today. However, antimony's cosmetic use faced criticism from early Christians, contrasting with its adoption as a medicine by the Church in the 18th century. Carthusian monks treated various ailments such as smallpox, ague, dropsy, and syphilis using kermes mineral, an antimony preparation.

Antimony's medicinal applications varied widely, often administered to induce sweating, vomiting, or purges, sometimes all three simultaneously. Legends abound regarding its experimentation, including tales of the monk Basil Valentine, who purportedly observed pigs consuming antimony discarded from a window. While the initial effect was purgative, the subsequent unexpected fattening of the pigs led Valentine to administer the antimony to fasting monks, resulting in their demise. This story is thought to have inspired the belief that antimony's name stems from "anti-moine" (monk's bane).

During the 16th to 18th centuries, references to antimony in medical, chemical, and literary works were abundant. In "The Anatomy of Melancholy" (1628), Burton notes its frequent prescription for melancholy, recounting the case of a parish priest in Prague, Bohemia, who, consumed by melancholy, was restored to lucidity after ingesting 12 grains (0.8 g) of stibium. Despite the unsettling nature of the resulting purging of black choler, likened to "little gobbets of flesh," and the darkening of his excrements, the priest experienced significant improvement, marking a remarkable recovery.

John Huxham (1692-1768), a pupil of the renowned clinical teacher Hermann Boerhaave at Leyden, praised antimony's virtues while also cautioning against its potential toxicity, recognizing that antimonial medicines could sometimes act as poisons rather than cures.

The fervent interest in antimony during this period led to the proliferation of books and pamphlets advocating its use for a wide array of ailments. However, these publications often included warnings about its potential dangers, with some outright condemning antimony preparations as poisonous. Among the notable works on antimony's therapeutic applications is Basil Valentine's "The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony," first published in German in 1604. This treatise blends chemistry, mysticism, and metallurgy, detailing the purification of gold using metallic antimony or sulphide. It provides a comprehensive exploration of antimony and its compounds, extensively discussing their use in medicine as emetics and purgatives while also acknowledging their toxic properties.

In the 17th and 18th centuries cups made from antimony became very popular as a means of inducing therapeutic sweating, vomiting and purging. Wine was poured into the cups and allowed to sit overnight. This resulted in the antimony reacting with tartaric acid in the wine to form antimony tartrate, a compound that induces vomiting.

Antimony cup with leather case, Europe, 1601-1700. Photo credit: Science Museum London

Another bizarre form in which antimony was taken was in the form of pills. However, these were not regular pills that was absorbed completely by the body. Instead, these hard antimony pills passed right through the guts after irritating the insides causing it to expel contents of the colon. After the pill passed through the body, it was customary to dig through the excreta in order to retrieve the pill, so that it could be cleaned and readied for the next use. These pills were known as perpetual pills because they were never exhausted.

William J. Robinson describes these pills in the Medico-Pharmaceutical Critic and Guide (1907):

This pill was a little bullet composed of metallic antimony which had or was believed to have the property of purging as often as it was swallowed. It is not inconceivable that it might have had such property, for it is possible that a minute amount was dissolved by the gastro-intestinal juices and this amount, plus the suggestion, was sufficient to produce cathartic action. Then again the everlasting pill probably aided peristalsis by its mechanical weight and motion. The bullet was passed out, recovered from the feces and used over and over again. This, as Dr. J. A. Paris says, was economy in right earnest, for a single pill would serve a whole family during their lives and might be transmitted as an heirloom to posterity.

The toxicity of antimony is well known today, which is why its probably still used to today as an emetic (induced vomiting). Antimony compounds are also used as antiprotozoan drugs and in several veterinary preparations.

# R I McCallum, President's address. Observations upon antimony, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine


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