FOLLOW US ON: follow us in feedly
‘Perpetual Pills,’ the reusable laxatives of the Middle Ages
06:10 am

Not really antimony, but silvered pills, via Marieke Hendriksen
The story of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun is interesting enough—it’s the basis for Ken Russell’s The Devils, hardly a dull movie. Yet the book is full of entertaining digressions, such as a lengthy parenthesis on the medical uses of antimony:

Certain compounds of antimony are specific in the treatment of the tropical disease known as kala-azar. In most other conditions, the use of the metal or its compounds is hardly worth the risks involved. Medically speaking, there was no justification for such indiscriminate use as was made of the drug during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the economic point of view, however, the justification was ample. [Loudun pharmacist] M. Adam and his fellow apothecaries sold Perpetual Pills of metallic antimony. These were swallowed, irritated the mucous membrane as they passed through the intestine, thus acting as a purgative, and could be recovered from the chamber pot, washed and used again, indefinitely. After the first capital outlay, there was no further need for spending money on cathartics. [Antimony-as-medicine opponent] Dr. Patin might fulminate and the Parlement forbid; but for the costive French bourgeois, the appeal of antimony was irresistible. Perpetual Pills were treated as heirlooms and after passing through one generation were passed on to the next.

If you coveted grandma’s Perpetual Pill, you might not have had to wait too long to get your hands into her chamber pot, because another result of taking antimony is death. Some researchers believe that Mozart died as a result of his “treatment” with antimony. Its reputation as a wonder drug coexisted uneasily with its reputation as a lethal poison. No matter how great the savings passed on to you, the consumer, in the little metal pill that lasts forever, there is such a thing as bad publicity, and one of its forms is agonizing death. Around the time of the Enlightenment, history’s real “greatest generation” stopped fishing Perpetual Pills out of their toilets.

An apothecary jar containing antimony, via Phisick
Nature reports: “A more refined alternative, generally used in the 1600s after the pellets were outlawed, was to drink wine that had been left standing in an antimony cup overnight.” But the English translation of Pierre Pomet’s Complete History of Drugs, published in 1748, contained some DIY advice for the unregenerate Perpetual Pill-seeker in the chapter “Of Regulus of Antimony with Mars or Iron” (“made of Antimony, Salt-petre, and Points of Horse-nails, or small Nails melted together”):

Whereas most People who have Occasion for the Goblets or Cups of the Regulus, find difficulty to come by them, let them apply to a Founder, and they may have what Sorts and Sizes they will, at a cheap Rate, without troubling themselves with Moulds, as several have done to their Labour and Cost, who have at last been obliged to give over the Attempt, not being able to make one Cup without a Hole, or some other Defect. You may also get these same Founders to make you the perpetual Pills, or you may easily make them yourself with a Musket-ball Mould.

The Pills serve for those that have the Twisting of the Guts, or Miserere mei, so called. When they are returned from out of the Body, it is but washing and cleaning them again, and they will serve as oft as you please; which gives them the name of Perpetual.

More after the jump…

Posted by Oliver Hall
06:10 am