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

Molly K. Zuckerman 1
  • 1 Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University, Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Mississippi State, MS 39762, USA


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’.

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