Mercury in Medicine: Fluid Economies of Knowledge and Trade

Workshop, 21./22. Februar 2013

Eine Reiterin lockt Quecksilber aus seinem Brunnen (© Trustees of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur)


UFSP Asien und Europa (Dr. Dagmar Wujastyk)


Mercury is today recognized as a harmful environmental pollutant and one of the world's most dangerous elemental toxins. And yet, it was long considered a near-miraculous substance capable of eradicating the most severe diseases. The medical use of quicksilver (liquid metallic mercury) is already documented in ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Arabic and Chinese medical and alchemical treatises, and particularly early instances of procedures for preparing mercury compounds are found in Chinese medicine.

In Europe, quicksilver and mercury compounds were increasingly used in medicine from the sixteenth century CE, especially after Paracelsus advocated their use. At the same time, trade in mercury became a global phenomenon with European colonial expansion, particularly for use in gold and silver mining as well as for medical purposes. For the next four centuries, mercury compounds such as corrosive sublimate (HgCl2), calomel (Hg2Cl2) and mercury sulfide compounds (HgS) were among the most important and heavily used drugs in the European and Asian pharmacopoeias, connecting Asian and European countries with each other in a network of trade and medical knowledge transfer.

The scholars participating in this multidisciplinary and international workshop will examine the uses of mercury in a number of medical and alchemical traditions (European, Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, Arab and Persian) from the early modern period to the present. Drawing upon the primary textual sources of each respective tradition as well as on colonial and trade company records, participants will explore the epistemologies of the use of mercury in medicine, i.e., why, when and how mercury was used in the different medical traditions. A comparison of processing methods, recipes and applications will serve to identify possible links between the various medical and alchemical systems.

Participants will further examine the role of the shifting colonial networks of trade and the inner workings of European markets in the development and global transmission of mercury products, exploring how mercury came to be one of the world's most important medical substances.

The final aim of the workshop is to map the networks of exchange between the different cultures and their medical systems, tracing the routes of trade and paths of cultural transfer that lead to the global dissemination of iatrochemical knowledge.


UFSP Asien und Europa, Raum WIE F-07, Wiesenstrasse 7/9, 8008 Zürich


Wenn Sie das Symposium besuchen wollen, setzen Sie sich bitte direkt mit Dagmar Wujastykin Verbindung.



Donnerstag, 21. Februar 2013
9:30–9:45   Welcome address: Dr. Dagmar Wujastyk, URPP Asia and Europe, University of Zurich
9:45–10:45   Prof. Paul Unschuld, director, Horst-Görtz-Stiftungsinstitut, Charité- Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany
The toxicity of mercury in ancient Chinese pharmaceutical literature
10:45–11:00   tea/coffee break
11:00–12:00   Dr. Daniel Trambaiolo, doctoral candidate, Princeton University, USA
Mercury drugs in Tokugawa Japan
12:00–13:00   Dr. Johannes Thomann, lecturer, Oriental studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Early Persian medical works on antisyphilitic mercury medicines
13:00–14:00   lunch break
14:00–15:00   Dr. Natalia Bachour, research fellow, Oriental studies, University of Zurich,  Switzerland
The use of mercury in Arab medicine
15:00–16:00   Dr. Olaf Czaja, research fellow, Indological and Central Asian institute, Universität Leipzig, Germany
The history of mercury in Tibetan medicine
16:00–16:15   tea/coffee break
16:15–17:15   Dr. Barbara Gerke, research fellow, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Germany
From secrecy to preservation: On the transmission of knowledge of mercury purification methods in Tibet and how the tsothel practice survived the Cultural Revolution


Freitag, 22. Februar 2013
9:30–10:30   Prof. Andrew Cunningham, research fellow, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, UK
The networks of inner-European trade in mercury
10:30–11:30   Dr Timothy Dale Walker, associate professor of history, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, USA
Acquisition and circulation of iatrochemical knowledge within the Portuguese colonial empire during the early modern period
11:30–11:45   coffee/tea break
11:45–12:45   Dr Dagmar Wujastyk, postdoctoral research fellow, URPP Asia and Europa, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Mercury as an antipsyphilitic in ayurvedic medicine
12:45–13:45   lunch break
13:45–14:45   Dr Dominik Wujastyk, research fellow, South Asian studies, University of Vienna, Austria
What is Indian alchemy about? Riches, healing, transcendance?
14:45–15:45   Prof. em. Jürgen Aschoff, psychiatrist and neurologist, University of Ulm, Germany
Modern research on the safety and efficacy of mercury in traditional Asian medicine
15:45–16:00   coffee/tea break
16:00–17:00   Ian Baker, journalist/independent scholar
Mercury use among contemporary alchemical practitioners in Burma
17:00–18:00   Group discussion

Die Veranstaltungssprache ist Englisch.