Jewish World Review June 25, 2004 / 6 Tamuz 5764

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Dosage makes the poison in 400-year-old mercury murder


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | 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 Hohenheim.


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 chloride.


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.)

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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. Comment by clicking here.

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