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"Too Good to Be True": The Controversy over the Use of Permanganate of Potash as an Antidote to Snake Poison and the Circulation of Brazilian Physiology in the Nineteenth Century


This article examines an international controversy over the most visible scientific event of Brazilian physiology in the nineteenth century. In 1881, Brazilian scientist João Baptista Lacerda stated that he had found an efficient antidote to the poison of Brazilian snakes: permanganate of potash (nowadays, potassium permanganate). His findings were given great publicity in Brazil and traveled rapidly around the world. Scientists, especially in France, contradicted Lacerda's claims. They argued that permanganate of potash could not be a genuine antidote to snake bites since it could not neutralize snake venom when diffused in the body. Lacerda turned down such criticism, claiming that clinical observation provided solid evidence for the drug's local action, on the spot surrounding the bite. The controversy over the use of permanganate of potash as an antidote to snake bite illustrates different regimes of proof that could be mobilized in favor of a physiological discovery.