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Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914-1917

Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914-1917

Credits: Science Museum

Mercurous chloride (HgCl) is also known as calomel. It was a popular drug from the 1800s onwards as it contained mercury, a chemical that was claimed to cure many illnesses. However, it slowly poisoned those who used it because mercury is toxic. Many of those taking such a drug would have been experiencing a venereal disease (VD) – probably syphilis. Calomel was used as an antiseptic and laxative during the First World War, but given the high rates of VD in the military it clearly proved useful in that context too. The packet contains calomel in tablet form to be taken orally. This packet was supplied by the 11th Army Corps of the German Army to its medical personnel and soldiers.

Object number:

A653640

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Glossary:

Glossary: syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.

Glossary: sexually transmitted infection

Any disease transmitted by sexual intercourse. STIs include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea, some chlamydia infections and genital herpes.

Glossary: laxative

An agent that acts to encourage evacuation of the bowels

Glossary: antiseptic

A chemical that destroys or holds back the growth of bacteria and harmful micro-organisms. It can be used to cleanse skin wounds and treat some internal infections if it is sufficiently non-toxic.

Glossary: calomel

A white powder that is an example of a mercury compound. It was formerly swallowed and used as a laxative.