Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …
Open Access

Open Archaeology

Editor-in-Chief: Harding, Anthony

1 Issue per year

Covered by:
Clarivate Analytics - Emerging Sources Citation Index

Open Access
See all formats and pricing
More options …

More Harm than Healing? Investigating the Iatrogenic Effects of Mercury Treatment on Acquired Syphilis in Post-medieval London.

Molly K. Zuckerman
  • Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University, Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Mississippi State, MS 39762, USA
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2016-05-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opar-2016-0003


Mercury was commonly used to treat syphilis in post-medieval Europe, but debate persists about whether it ameliorated infection or exacerbated it. As there are no in vitro studies on mercury’s effectiveness, Hg levels were characterized using an established technique, portable X-Ray Florescence Spectrometry (pXRF) in syphilitic skeletons (N=22) from six post-medieval London cemeteries. Levels were assessed against proxies for syphilitic infection severity (lesion type, episodic involvement, extent of involvement), oral health indicators, and age at death. The findings are equivocal, likely obfuscated by background poor oral health and high mortality, and cannot elucidate whether mercury ‘killed or cured’.

Keywords: syphilis; mercury; pXRF; post-medieval; London; trace element analysis; paleopathology


  • Beck, S. (1997). Syphilis: the great pox. In K. Kiple (Ed.), Plague, Pox & Pestilence: Disease in History (pp. 110-115). London: Weidenfeld Nicolson. Google Scholar

  • Bekvalac, J., Cowal, L., Kausmally, T., & Mikulski, R. (2007). Cemetery Summary: St Thomas’ Hospital. Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London, Google Scholar

  • Bidstrup, P. L. (1964). Toxicity of Mercury and its Compounds. Amsterdam: Elsevier. Google Scholar

  • Brickley, M., Miles, A., & Stainer, H. (1999). The Cross Bones Burial Ground, Redcross Way, Southwark London. Archaeological Excavations (1991-1998) for the London Underground Limited Jubilee Line Extension Project. Monograph 3. London: Museum of London Archaeological Monograph Services Google Scholar

  • Brooks, S., & Suchey, J. (1990). Skeletal age determination based on the os pubis: comparison of the Acsádi-Nemeskéri and Suchey-Brooks methods. Journal of Human Evolution, 5, 227-238. Google Scholar

  • Buckberry, J., & Chamberlain, A. (2002). Age estimation from the auricular surface of the ilium: a revised method. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 119, 231–239. Google Scholar

  • Buikstra, J., & Ubelaker, D. (Eds.). (1994). Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains (Vol. 44). Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey Research Series. Google Scholar

  • Campbell, M. (1991). Gold, silver and precious stones. In J. Blair & N. Ramsey (Eds.), English Medieval Industries (pp. 107-166). London: Hambledon Press. Google Scholar

  • Cowie, R., Bekvalac, J., & Kausmally, T. (2008). Late 17th- to 19th-century burial and earlier occupation at All Saints, Cheslea Old Church, Royal Borough of Kensington, and Chelsea. MOLAS Archaeology Studies Series 18. London: Museum of London Archaeology Service. Google Scholar

  • Davis, A., Bloom, N., & Que Hee, S. (1997). The environmental geochemistry and bioaccessibility of mercury in soils and sediments: a review. Risk Analysis, 17(5), 557-569. Google Scholar

  • Dobson, M. (2007). Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers. London: Quercus History. Google Scholar

  • Ehrlich, H., & Newman, D. (2008). Geomicrobiology of Mercury, 5th Edition Geomicrobiology. New York: CRC Press. Google Scholar

  • Fabricius, J. (1994). Syphilis in Shakespeare’s England. London; Bristol, Pa.: Jessica Kingsley. Google Scholar

  • Fagala, G., & Wigg, C. (1992). Psychiatric manifestations of mercury poisoning. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 31(2), 306-311. Google Scholar

  • Foá, V. (1985). Neurotoxicity of elemental mercury: occupational aspects. In K. Blum & L. Manzo (Eds.), Neurotoxicology (pp. 323-345). New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc. Google Scholar

  • Garcia, F., Ortega, A., Domingo, J., & Corbella, J. (2001). Accumulation of metals in autopsy tissues of subjects living in Tarragona County, Spain. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A. Toxic/ Hazardous Substances and Environmental Engineering, 36(9), 1767-1786. Google Scholar

  • Gjestland, T. (1955). The Oslo study of untreated syphilis. An epidemiologic investigation of the natural course of the syphilitic infection based upon a re-study of the Boeck-Bruusgaard material. Acta Dermato-Venereologica, 35, 3-368; Annex I-LVI. Google Scholar

  • Goldwater, L. (1972). Mercury: A History of Quicksilver. Baltimore: York Press. Google Scholar

  • Hackett, C. (1976). Diagnostic Criteria of Syphilis, Yaws and Treponarid (Treponematoses) and of Some Other Diseases in Dry Bones (for Use in Osteo-Archaeology). Berlin: Springer-Verlag. Google Scholar

  • Harper, K., Zuckerman, M., Harper, M., Kingston, J., & Armelagos, G. (2011). The origin and antiquity of syphilis revisited: an appraisal of Old World pre-Columbian evidence for treponemal infection. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 54, 99-133. Google Scholar

  • Hedges, R. (2002). Bone diagenesis: an overview of processes. Archaeometry, 44(3), 319-328. Google Scholar

  • Hillson, S. (1996). Teeth. Cambridge , UK: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Holmes, K. (1984). Syphilis. In K. Holmes (Ed.), Sexually Transmitted Diseases (pp. 288-380). New York: McGraw Hll. Google Scholar

  • Homer, R. (1991). Tin, lead, and pewter. In J. Blair & N. Ramsey (Eds.), English Medieval Industries (pp. 57-80). London: Hambledon Press. Google Scholar

  • Irfan, U., Dawson, D., & Bissada, N. (2001). Epidemiology of periodontal disease: a review and clinical perspectives. Journal of the International Academy of Periodontology, 3, 14-21. Google Scholar

  • Kepa, M., Kozlowski, T., Szostek, K., Drozd, A., Walas, S., Mrowiec, H., et al. (2012). Analysis of mercury levels in historical bone material from syphilitic subjects - pilot studies (short report). Anthropologischer Anzeiger, 69(3), 367-377. Google Scholar

  • Kausmally, T. (2008). Cemetery Summary: Farringdon: St Brides lower churchyard. Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London, Google Scholar

  • Keogh, A. (1913). A Manual of Venereal Diseases. London: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar

  • Krabbenhoft, D., & Schuster, P. (2002). Atmospheric mercury deposition during the last 270 years: a glacial ice core record of natural and anthropogenic sources. Environmental Science & Technology, 36(11), 2302-2310. Google Scholar

  • LaFond, R., & Lukehart, S. (2006). Biological basis for syphilis. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 19(1), 29-49. Google Scholar

  • Larsen, C. (1997). Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Google Scholar

  • Lees, D. (Ed.). (1937). Practical Methods in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Venereal Diseases. Baltimore: William Wood & Company. Google Scholar

  • Liang, Y., Sun, R., Sun, Y., Chen, Z., & Li, L. (1993). Psychological effects of low exposure to mercury vapor: Application of computer-administered neurobehavioral evaluation system. Environmental Research, 60(2), 320. Google Scholar

  • Lovejoy, C., Meindl, R., Pryzbeck, T., & Mensforth, R. (1985). Chronological metamorphosis of the auricular surface of the ilium: a new method for determining adult age at death. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 68, 15-28. Google Scholar

  • Manolagas, S. (2000). Birth and death of bone cells: basic regulatory mechanisms and implications for the pathogenesis and treatment of osteoporosis. Endocrine Reviews, 21, 115-137. Google Scholar

  • McAllister, M. E. (1996). John Burrows and the Vegetable Wars. In L. E. Merians (Ed.), The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth Century Britain and France (pp. 85-103). Lexington University Press of Kentucky. Google Scholar

  • McFarland, R., & Reigel, H. (1978). Chronic mercury poisoning from a single brief exposure. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 20, 532. Google Scholar

  • Miles, A., & Conheeney, J. (2005). A post-medieval population from London: excavations in the St Bride’s Lower Churchyard 75–82 Farringdon Street, City of London, EC4. MoLAS Studies Series. Unpublished. Google Scholar

  • Miles, A., & White, W. (2008). Burial at the Site of the Parish Church of St Benet Sherehog Before and After the Great Fire: Excavations at 1 Poultry, City of London. Monograph Series, No. 39. London: Museum of London Archaeological Services. Google Scholar

  • Ngim, C., Foo, S., Boey, K., & Keyaratnam, J. (1992). Chronic neurobehavioral effects of elemental mercury in dentists. British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 49, 782. Google Scholar

  • O’Shea, J. (1990). ‘Two minutes with venus, two years with mercury’ - Mercury as an antisyphilitic chemotherapeutic agent. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 83(6), 392-395. Google Scholar

  • Ortner, D. (Ed.). (2003). Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: Academic Press. Google Scholar

  • Osler, W., & Macrae, T. (1920). The Principles and Practice of Medicine. London: D Appleton. Google Scholar

  • Quétel, C. (1990). History of Syphilis (J. Braddock & B. Pike, Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Google Scholar

  • Rasmussen, K., Boldsen, J., Kristensenc, H., Skyttea, L., Hansena, K., Mølholma, L., et al. (2008). Mercury levels in Danish medieval human bones. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(8), 2295-2306. Google Scholar

  • Rasmussen, K., Skytte, L., Pilekaer, C., Lauritsen, A., Boldsen, J., Leth, P., et al. (2013). The distribution of mercury and other trace elements in the bones of two human individuals from medieval Denmark - the chemical life history hypothesis. Heritage Science, 1(10), 1-13. Google Scholar

  • Roberts, C., & Cox, M. (2003). Health and Disease in the Post-Medieval Period (c. 1550-1850). In C. Roberts & M. Cox (Eds.), Health & Disease in Britain: From Prehistory to the Present Day (pp. 287-359). Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton Publishing. Google Scholar

  • Salazar, J., Hazlett, K., & Radolf, J. (2002). The immune response to infection with Treponema pallidum, the stealth pathogen. Microbes and Infection, 4, 1133-1140. Google Scholar

  • Schuer, L. (1998). Age at death and cause of death of the people buried in St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London. In M. Cox (Ed.), Grave Concerns: Death and Burial in England, 1700-1850 (pp. 100-111). York: CBA Research Papers. Google Scholar

  • Siena, K. (2001). The “Foul Disease” and privacy: the effects of venereal disease and patient demand on the medical marketplace in early modern London. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 75, 199-224. Google Scholar

  • Siena, K. (2004). Venereal Disease, Hospitals, and the Urban Poor: London’s ‘Foul Wards,’ 1600-1800. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. Google Scholar

  • Siena, K. (2005). Introduction. In K. Siena (Ed.), Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe (pp. 7-33). Toronto, CA CCRS Publications, Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Google Scholar

  • Singh, A., & Romanowski, B. (1999). Syphilis: review with emphasis on clinical, epidemiologic, and some biologic features. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 12(2), 187-209. Google Scholar

  • Smith, F., & Hursh, J. (1977). Bone storage and release. In S. Geiger, S. Murphy, H. Falk & D. Lee (Eds.), Handbook of Physiology, Reactions to Environmental Agents (pp. 469-482). Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. Google Scholar

  • St John, K. (1976). Treatment of late benign syphilis - a review of the literature. American Journal of Venereal Disease, 3, 146. Google Scholar

  • Swiderski, R. (2008). Quicksilver: A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company, Inc. Google Scholar

  • Temkin, O. (1977). On the history of “morality and syphilis” The Double Face of Janus and Other Essays in the History of Medicine (pp. 472-484). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Google Scholar

  • Trumbauch, R. (1998). Sex and the Gender Revolution, vol. 1, Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar

  • Tucker, F. (2007). Kill or cure? The osteological evidence of the mercury treatment of syphilis in 17th to 19th century London. London Archaeologist 11(8), 220-224. Google Scholar

  • WHO. (1976). Environmental Health Criteria: 1. Mercury. International Programme on Chemical Safety. Geneva: WHO & the United Nations Environment Programme. Google Scholar

  • Wohl, A. (1983). Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. London: Methuen. Google Scholar

  • WORD database. (2010). Post-medieval data downloads. from Museum of London. Accessed (25/07/2010) http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/English/Collections/OnlineResources/CHB/Resources/Post-medievaldatadownloads.htm: Google Scholar

  • Yamada, M., Tohno, S., Tohno, Y., Minami, T., Ichii, M., & Okazaki, Y. (1995). Accumulation of mercury in excavated bones of two natives in Japan. Science of the Total Environment, 162(2,3), 253-256. Google Scholar

  • Zuckerman, M. (2010). Sex, society, and syphilis: a social, ecological, and evolutionary history of syphilis in late medieval and early modern England (c. 1494-1865). PhD dissertation Emory University, Atlanta. Google Scholar

  • Zuckerman, M. (2016). Mercury in the midst of mars and venus: reconstructing gender and socioeconomic status in the context of mercury treatments for acquired syphilis in 17th to 19th century England. In S. Agarwal & J. Wesp (Eds.), Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. Google Scholar

About the article

Received: 2015-10-26

Accepted: 2016-03-29

Published Online: 2016-05-16

Citation Information: Open Archaeology, Volume 2, Issue 1, ISSN (Online) 2300-6560, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opar-2016-0003.

Export Citation

© 2016 Molly K. Zuckerman. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. BY-NC-ND 3.0

Citing Articles

Here you can find all Crossref-listed publications in which this article is cited. If you would like to receive automatic email messages as soon as this article is cited in other publications, simply activate the “Citation Alert” on the top of this page.

Joe W. Walser, Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, Rebecca Gowland, and Natasa Desnica
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 2018

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in