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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Healthy and Harmful Mercury

The use of mercury in medical and alchemical traditions across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia was the topic of the workshop “Mercury in Medicine: Fluid Economies of Knowledge and Trade” (February 21–22, 2013) organized by Dr. Dagmar Wujastyk and the URPP Asia and Europe.

Barbara Gerke

A few days after the January 2013 UN meeting in Geneva that passed the global ban of mercury after four years of negotiations with the aim of preventing mercury emissions into the environment, a group of international scholars from various disciplines met at the University of Zurich on a related topic. They discussed the uses of mercury in alchemical and medical preparations with European, Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, Arab, and Persian origins from the early modern period to the present. One of the insights resulting from the workshop was that seemingly universal concepts of toxicity and safety change over time and are influenced by both cultural perceptions and political priorities. Such changes of perceived toxicity of mercury and its medical products are evident in Chinese medical traditions. Since the 1st century CE, these changes have involved mercury and its compounds and, in exploring its uses, followed the motto “what can take life away may also be able to bestow life” (Ulrike and Paul Unschuld, Horst-Görtz-Stiftungsinstitut, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin). Across cultures, mercury was perceived as a living metal because of its fluidity which had to be ‘killed’ in order for it to be medically utilized. Several participants analyzed the ways in which such ‘purifications’ were achieved, which resulted in producing substances such as mercury-sulfide (HgS), corrosive sublimate (HgCl2) and calomel (Hg2Cl2). Recipes containing these mercurials are mentioned in historical Sanskrit sources linked to early alchemical knowledge in South Asia (Dagmar Wujastyk, University of Zurich). Today mostly the insoluble mercury-sulfide compounds are used in Ayurveda, which has undergone a modern scientification of its alchemy. Its outlook has become more chemical and scientific through its representations at departments of Rasa Shastra (the science of preparing rejuvenating medicines with metals) at various Indian Universities (Dominik Wujastyk, University of Vienna).

The central role of syphilis treatment

While important facts remain unclear about the mercury trade through Intra-European networks (Andrew Cunningham, University of Cambridge), trade with Asia through global trade routes was clearly dominated by the Portuguese after the 16th century. This is documented in Jesuit manuscripts that show recipes combining mercury with various other substances available through Portuguese global trade routes (Timothy Dale Walker, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth). The variety of recipes containing mercury in Arab traditions—where recipes were partially translated from Greek, Syriac, Indian, and Latin sources (Natalia Bachour, University of Zurich)—as well as in Persian traditions reveal a tremendous flexibility of substances that could be combined with mercury, with the result that “the only substance common to all recipes is mercury” (Johannes Thomann, University of Zurich).

The disease that keeps reappearing in the context of mercury is syphilis, which was widely treated with toxic mercury compounds across Europe and Asia from the 16th century onwards until the synthetic drug Salvarsan was introduced in 1910. The workshop was particularly interesting in presenting perspectives on how syphilis was treated from various cross-cultural and linguistic sources: 16th century Sanskrit sources and their possible links with European, Persian and Chinese medicine (Dagmar Wujastyk); Persian sources and their Chinese and European influences (Johannes Thomann); and drug production in late 18th and early 19th century Japan (Daniel Trambaiolo, Princeton University). Syphilis was so widespread that ideas on how to treat it were translated across cultures, as became evident in these presentations.

Preserving Tibetan national identity

The ways of knowledge transmission of mercurial medicines changed over time. In Japan, for instance, mercurial alchemy was considered secret knowledge until it became socially advantageous to write recipe books (Daniel Trambaiolo). In Tibet, the secret and selective way of transmitting knowledge of specific ways to purify mercury was endangered in the 1950s when China invaded Tibet and physicians were imprisoned; writing down and teaching the pharmacological methods thus became a question of preservation (Barbara Gerke, Humboldt University of Berlin). In this connection, specific mercury-sulfide medicines gained importance as they were also considered to represent Tibetan national identity. In recent times, these medicines obtained the status of a cultural heritage in China, providing the niche to manufacture them in an otherwise understandably anti-mercurial environment where strict rules are in place against the use of heavy metals in medicines.

Vivid images of mercurial pratices

The participants also discussed how the recent UN decision to exclude religious and traditional uses of mercury from its ban might support the continuation of local usages of these centuries-old traditions. This exception might also collide with the scientific image that some Asian traditions like to project and may even lead to re-inventions of so-called traditional and religious aspects of such practices in order to qualify for such exemptions. The fact that clinical studies to prove the efficacy of mercurial substances on humans are still missing in scientific publications (Jürgen Aschoff, University of Ulm) reflects the difficulties and challenges in proving any kind of healing properties of the stable and thus less toxic mercury-sulfide compounds in widespread use today in Asian medicines.

Within the largely historical and linguistic debates, the fieldwork presentation of the contemporary usage of alchemical practices with mercury in Burma (Ian Baker, independent scholar) added a living ethnographic dimension to what other researchers explored in textual traditions. With an impressive visual documentation of alchemical practices that span the social and economic strata of Burmese society, this presentation left all participants with vivid images of what mercurial practices in other regions might have looked like in the past.

Spanning contemporary and historical practices, the workshop sketched numerous mercurial scenes linking the past to the present and showing how mercury transcended its toxicity into accepted medical practices.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 3/2014, pp. 10–11)

Weiterführende Informationen


The event took place from February 21 to February 22, 2013: