Jewish World Review June 25, 2004 / 6 Tamuz 5764
Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak
Dosage makes the poison in 400-year-old mercury murder
A favorite focus of the Medicine Men column is how dose levels often
transforms a beneficial medicine into a poison. Low doses of aspirin and
radiation, for example, can reduce heart disease and eliminate cancer. High
doses can kill.
The famous dictum, "the dose makes the medicine," nicely summarizes the
phenomenon, and was originally set down centuries ago by Paracelsus, whose
full name happens to be Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von
In the case of the elemental metal mercury, some of our progenitors in
medicine, the alchemists, understood this concept very well. They knew that
low doses of one mercury compound could be used therapeutically as a
diuretic, whereas high doses of a different mercury compound have the
opposite effect, causing kidney failure, making urination all but
impossible, and leading to a painful demise.
According to a just-published real-life detective story, "Heavenly
Intrigue," researched and written by Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder, this
knowledge was a major clue in their solving a murder that occurred in 1601.
The Gilders analyze forensic medical evidence gathered since 1991 to put
together compelling evidence that Johannes Kepler, one of the great
astronomers of all time, based his achievements on observation data stolen
from his mentor, Tycho Brahe, after secretly poisoning him with mercuric
Poisoning was identified as the cause of Brahe's death by Bent Kaempe,
director of the Department of Forensic Chemistry at the Institute of
Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen. Kaempe had more than
fifty years experience investigating suspicious deaths when he was asked to
do an analysis of Brahe's hair. (You'll have to read the book to find out
how he happened to have a centuries-old piece of hair to analyze.)
Although history records that Brahe's friends and relatives suspected he had
been poisoned - given Brahe's robust health and the sudden onset of his
fatal illness - they had no evidence to support their suspicion (much less a
charge of murder) and it was generally accepted that the astronomer died
from holding his urine too long.
Kaempe knew that Brahe was an alchemist and had prepared potions containing
mercury. Operating on the hunch that Brahe may have poisoned himself while
experimenting in his own laboratory, he used an atomic absorption
spectrometer to test for arsenic, lead and mercury.
The results revealed extremely high levels of mercury inside the hair,
leading Kaempe to report in 1993, that "Tycho Brahe's uremia can probably be
traced to mercury poisoning, most likely due to Brahe's experiments with his
elixir 11-12 days before his death."
Most historians, including the authors, were skeptical of Kaempe's
conclusion that Brahe accidentally caused his own poisoning. The writers
point out that although modern equipment was needed to prove the cause of
death centuries ago, this did not mean the alchemists of yore were ignorant
of mercury's attributes. Interestingly, the Hindu word for alchemy is
"rasasiddhi" meaning "knowledge of mercury," a name which reflects the
ancient fascination with this metal. They knew that pure metallic mercury -
such as is found in a thermometer - is relatively benign, while mercury
compounds can be toxic and even fatal.
The varying properties of mercury compounds have been known for about 2000
years. Since then the substance has been used in a cure for syphilis, a
fungicide for crops, a topical antiseptic and a vaccine preservative. The
issue was, and remains, one of dosage and chemical form.
While ill-informed alchemists and physicians often plied their mercury
treatments with dangerous results, the book reveals how this was not the
case with Tycho Brahe, Paracelsus and other leading alchemists of the
period. One of their goals was to develop an elixir that mitigated the harm
done by mercury, while retaining its curative value. There is no evidence
that Brahe was ignorant of the dangers of misusing mercury, nor was there
any indication that he was considering suicide. Just the opposite. The
authors concluded that Kepler, on the other hand, had the motive, means and
opportunity to create and administer the fatal potion.
The Medicine Men recommend this chronicle for readers who like astronomy,
history, biographies or mysteries. We are especially pleased that it also
reinforces our pet theme, that dosage makes the poison.
We think our favorite dictum provides a healthy antidote to fad fears that
random exposure to low doses of substances in our environment are poisoning
us - such as we've seen with asbestos, DDT, cigarette smoke, and now fast
food. And we now have an intriguing story to help us illustrate it.
Editor's Note: Robert J. Cihak wrote this week's column.
Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments
on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute
Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians
and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists.
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