Antimony in Medical History: An Account of the Medical Uses of Antimony and Its Compounds since Early Times to the Present (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.2 (2000) 362-364

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Book Review

Antimony in Medical History: An Account of the Medical Uses of Antimony and Its Compounds since Early Times to the Present

R. Ian McCallum. Antimony in Medical History: An Account of the Medical Uses of Antimony and Its Compounds since Early Times to the Present. Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1999. xvi + 125 pp. Ill. £15.00.

There is no doubt about the importance of antimony in early modern medicine. Although many chemically prepared medicines were introduced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, antimony and its compounds caused more debate than any of the others. Indeed, the century from ca. 1560 to ca. 1660 has been termed the "Antimony War," a conflict that witnessed acrid confrontation between Galenists and iatrochemists. Although much has been written on this topic already, Professor McCallum's book will not be an unwelcome addition to this literature. As emeritus professor of occupational health, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and former editor of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, and with a longtime association with the antimony industry of northeast England, he is particularly well suited for this research.

Antimony in Medical History is a slim volume of ninety-eight pages (of which nearly twenty are illustrations) plus two tables: the first, of antimony preparations, and the second, a list of antimony ores. The first chapter covers the period from the ancient Near East through the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on the fourteenth-century De consideratione quintae essentiae of John of Rupescissa. Here McCallum relies heavily on Robert P. Multhauf's fundamental study, "John of Rupescissa and the Origins of Medical Chemistry."1 The heart of the book, chapters 2-6, deals with the period from Paracelsus through the end of the seventeenth century; the final three chapters proceed to the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

However, this book should have been longer. The reader often has the feeling of being presented with little more than a list of authors who have mentioned antimony. Much more could have been said about the complex setting of the period, involving the assimilation of chemically prepared medicines to the traditional materia medica. And although the author has done an excellent job [End Page362 ] locating some rather obscure references, there are important ones that have been missed. Pietro Andrea Mattioli's chapter on antimony in his Commentarii on Dioscorides (1544) should have been included, not only because of its almost immediate influence, but also because of the many reprinted editions that continued on through the end of the next century. Similarly, some secondary sources are missing, such as A. G. Chevalier's "The 'Antimony War'--A Dispute Between Montpellier and Paris,"2 and some more recent accounts of the relation of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century uses of antimony to other Paracelsian medico-chemical innovations.

Professor McCallum notes references to antimony in literature ranging from the seventeenth-century theater to the anonymous 1862 Notting Hill Mystery. He also discusses the alchemical symbolism of antimony and, in a particularly interesting chapter, takes up the use of antimony cups and pills. The drinking of wine from such a cup or the swallowing of a reusable antimony pill was thought to be beneficial, since the effect of antimony on the body was believed to be analogous to its use in the purification of gold: thus, antimony extracts and expels "from the stomach, whatsoever within the whole body of man, is found to be offensive to Nature or contrary to the health and good constitution of the body."3 In this chapter will be found photographs of all the cups the author could locate in the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

McCallum's chapter on the eighteenth century takes up Isaac Newton's preparation of the regulus of antimony, the use of antimony by Boerhaave, and then the article on antimony by John Huxham that was printed in the Philosophical Transactions...