Mercury, Medicine or Madness?

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An inaugural address by Trevor Patrick at Rouse Hill Estate in April 2002 revealed the use of mercury as a medicine by the Rouse and Terry families. The medicine cabinet (pictured) is one of only two in the world to claim continuous ownership by a family from the 19th century. A Dutch family is recorded as owning such a cabinet from 1850 and this Rouse family example is from 1875. The cabinet contains Calomel and Blue Pills which contain Mercury together with Bertrand’s Toilet Vinegar, Sweet Spirit of Nitre, Compound Powder of Rhubarb, Toothache drops, Dovers Powder and Abrahams Pills. The various ingredients show the Rouse family medical needs were keeping the bowels open ( a popular Victorian concern) together with kidney function, toothache, and having on hand a strong pain relief [Dovers Powder contains Opium]. It must be remembered that medical help was anything up to two hours away with a horse ride to Windsor or Parramatta to summon a doctor.

Rouse Hill Estate Family Medicine Cabinet
Rouse Hill Estate Family Medicine Cabinet

The cabinet held a special book giving advice on the selection of the correct medicament together with a small mortar and pestle and scales, so the master or mistress of the house could prepare a dose to help the sick member of the household.

From ancient times, mercury was considered a magical substance since it is a heavy metal that flows like water at room temperature. Blue pills consist of tiny beads of pure mercury mixed into a sweet base and taken as a laxative. Calomel is a white powder of a mercury compound used as a teething powder by rubbing a small quantity onto the baby’s gums. Fortunately the Calomel was rarely absorbed to a dangerous level and the action of rubbing the gums was the true medicinal aid in soothing the infant.

Mercury and its compounds have both poisonous and antiseptic properties and its use has been largely replaced by modern medicaments.

Trevor Patrick is a local historian of the north-west of Sydney, Australia. His latest book, In Search of the Pennant Hills, recounts some of these stories (and others) in more detail.