The most common treatment of syphilis - from the first outbreaks in the 19th century to the early years of the 20th century was mercury given in various forms - pills, ointments, steam baths or even enemas.

Mercury was the remedy of choice for syphilis in Protestant Europe. Paracelsus (1493-1541) formulated mercury as an ointment because he recognised the toxicity and risk of poisoning when administrating mercury as an elixir. Mercury was already being used in Western Europe to treat skin diseases [...]

The mercury, or ‘blue mass’, pills shown in the print were popular from the 17th to 19th century and used mercury in its elemental form or compound form, usually mercurous chloride (also known as calomel). The first effective treatment for syphilis, Salvarsan, was only found in 1910 — five years after the causative bacterium was identified by Fritz Schaudinn (a zoologist) and Erich Hoffmann (a dermatologist).


Mercury is of course highly toxic, so the "cure" was quite often worse that the disease itself. But was the mercury completely inefficient and the whole therapy akin to drinking holy water or having sex with virgin, or was there a shade of chance, that it would actually work and cure the disease?

  • 1
    Interesting question so +1, but why use Roman numerals? You're not medieval cleric.
    – Carey Gregory
    Mar 16, 2018 at 1:32
  • @CareyGregory I'm used to use Roman numerals when it comes to centuries :) Call it a cultural difference
    – Yasskier
    Mar 16, 2018 at 1:34

1 Answer 1


We don't have any controlled trials but the physicians of the time greatly doubted the efficacy of mercury salves and inhalation

LW Harrison, a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I, described the effectiveness of Salvarsan and Neosalvarsan on soldiers who contracted syphilis during the war. [18]  Arsenic however, while being able to cure syphilis whereas mercury wasn’t, had many drawbacks – administration of treatment was complex requiring many injections over a long period of time, and it also produced toxic side effects


And there is a lack of biological plausibility to the treatment. There's no substance in modern medicine that can be applied topically to treat a systemic spirochaete infection.

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