Part 2: Ties that Bind

Part 2 of 6 of an interview with David Peck, D.O.


The accepted treatment at that time, during Lewis and Clark, and really throughout the world, for the disease of syphilis, was mercury. It was administered both orally in the form of calomel, which was again an ingredient in Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills, and it was also applied topically onto the skin. The mercury would be absorbed through the skin and would treat the syphilis.

Now, for a brief explanation of how the mercury would work in the treatment of syphilis we have to go to the field of biology In order to understand the action of the medicinal mercury we have to take a look at some of the basic properties of all living things, human beings and bacteria as well. Now, of course, syphilis is caused by a bacteria called treponema pallidum,1 and this little bacteria has to carry on life processes just like we do. The key life molecules that allow these processes to occur and allow us to live, as well as the bacteria, often times are catalyzed by chemical reactions caused by small proteins within our body that we call enzymes.

Enzymes are made from small molecules called amino acids. There are 21 different types of amino acids. They are assembled within the body, not only ourselves, but also the bacteria, in chains. Each one of these little rings would represent an amino acid and as we put them together and form small chains like this, soon the body or bacteria can put them together in quite long chains containing hundreds, even thousands of amino acids in length. Now, these things allow us to live and allow the treponema syphilitic bacteria to live as well. These are very complex organic molecules and they have their ability to do their work, not only because they are long chains, but they also link to each other in very interesting three-dimensional ways. This can come over and link with this, this portion of the chain can come up and link with another portion of the chain. It's very precise how this happens. In order for this enzyme to do its work within the body it has to assume this three-dimensional shape.

Now, the way that mercury would work is, once a patient or victim came down with the signs of syphilis, Lewis and Clark would start to administer the oral or the topical mercury ointment. The mercury would be absorbed into to the body, and what mercury does is, it attacks chemical bonds in enzymes, specifically sulfur bonds within the enzyme. What happens is, the mercury actually comes in and attacks a bond where these chains are held together and causes it to break apart. So this three-dimensional shape of this enzyme, which was necessary for the life processes, not only of the human patient, but also the bacteria . . . this enzyme is no longer able to do its work. Consequently the bacteria dies. Also, this is responsible for the ugly side-effects that mercury had with the patients that it was administered to.2

Supported in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost-Share Program

  • 1. Pronounced tre-po-NEE-ma PAL-i-dum. It means "pale turning [wiggling] thread," which describes the wormlike bacterial organism, or spirochete, as seen under a microscope.
  • 2. Mercury poisoning through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption through the skin may range from asthma and hives, to weakening of muscles, loss of vision, kidney damage, paralysis, and death. It also can cause lesions of the central nervous system, loss of memory, anxiety, depression and, ultimately, mental and emotional collapse. In the early 19th century, when felt hats were made of fur, the use of mercury salts to prevent fungus from growing on them commonly affected the makers, giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter." The nonsensical Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1871) was literally out of his senses, a victim of the industry's overriding occupational hazard.