Arsenic: Is This Ancient Poison a Modern Remedy?
In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concerning a long-term study in China, it has been reported that doctors appear to have safely and successfully treated patients with cancer of the blood and bone marrow with a combination of arsenic and vitamin A. The regimen was prescribed to 85 patients and they were monitored for an average of 70 months. Of these, 80 patients went into complete remission and their hearts and lungs appeared to be free of any associated long-term problems and there was no development of secondary cancers.
According to the study:
“Two years after their treatment, the patients had arsenic, blood and urine levels well below safety limits, and only slightly higher than controls. The treatment was effective ... and worked better than either drug given alone.”
The utilization of vitamin A as a viable treatment for patients with blood and bone marrow cancer is not a new idea, but this marks the first time its use has been monitored for such an extended period of time.
Arsenic is a poison, which has been used medicinally for more than 3000 years. In the year 2000, The US Food and Drug Administration approved it for treatment in certain blood and bone marrow cancers. It is now regularly used to treat a specific cancer (acute promyelocytic leukemia), which is characterized by the fusion of two proteins (PML and RARA), which make cells leukemic.
Since ancient times, arsenic compounds have been used to cure or treat certain ailments. Dating back to the 8th century AD, an Arab alchemist named Jabir, became the first to prepare arsenic trioxide, which is a white, tasteless, odorless powder. Arsenic trioxide is the most important commercial compound of arsenic. It is the highly toxic byproduct of certain kinds of ore processing, such as gold mining, and it’s often found in minerals such as arsenolite and claudetite.
In his day, Jabir had created the perfect poison as it left no traceable elements in the body (at least not until modern times). Jabir Ibn Haiyan, is also known as Geber the alchemist of the Middle Ages and he is considered the father of chemistry. The son of a druggist named Attar, he practiced medicine and alchemy in Kufa around 776 C.E under the patronage of the Caliphate of Haroon al-Rashid. He died in 803 C.E, his major contribution considered to be the experimental investigation into alchemy, which rapidly changed its character into modern chemistry. In fact, the word, chemistry, is derived from the Arabic al-Kimya.
In ancient Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, arsenic-sulfur compounds were used in a poison cocktail called sayak, which was the accepted method of capital punishment for high-profile political figures and members of the royal family. Due to the social and political prominence of those condemned to die by ingesting the deadly elixir, many of these events were well-documented, and they are sometimes reproduced and portrayed in historical television miniseries due to their dramatic nature.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods in Europe, arsenic became a favorite murder weapon among the nobles. This was especially so among the ruling classes in Italy, namely the Borgias. Arsenic poisoning in those days remained undetected for its symptoms resembled those of cholera and there was no forensic science to prove another cause of death. It was used so often that by the 19th century, arsenic had gained the notorious moniker of “inheritance powder,” for reasons that need no clarification. Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Báthory is also suspected of having used arsenic to poison male lovers so that they could never leave her.
Arsenic was a very versatile powder indeed. In addition to its use as a poison, for centuries it was utilized extensively to treat syphilis before penicillin was introduced. Arsenic was replaced as a therapeutic agent by sulfa drugs and then by antibiotics. It was also an ingredient found in many tonics or “patent medicines.” During the Victorian era, some women used a mixture of vinegar, chalk, and arsenic and applied it to whiten their skin, which was considered fashionable. In many cases, it did prevent aging as it was absorbed in the bloodstream, killing the owner of such.
Nineteenth-century impressionists used a painting pigment based on arsenic compounds known as Emerald Green. It is known that Cezanne developed severe diabetes, which is a symptom of arsenic poisoning and Monet’s legendary blindness as well as Van Gogh’s neurological disorders may have been caused at least in part by their use of Emerald Green.
Murder mystery stories often feature arsenic poisoning, although they commonly omit the more disagreeable symptoms. In actuality, arsenic poisoning has been implicated as a cause of death in a number of very prominent historical figures. Recent forensic evidence suggests that Francesco de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his wife were poisoned possibly by his brother and successor to the throne. England’s George III may have met a similar fate as researchers in a 2004 study of samples of the King’s hair, revealed extremely high levels of arsenic. Napoleon Bonaparte may also have died of arsenic poison as forensic samples of his hair did show 13 times the normal amount of the element. It is possible it my not have been deliberate, as the common pigment in wallpapers was copper arsenite which could have been the culprit. It is also likely that American explorer Charles Hall was murdered by arsenic poisoning.
Arsenic has come a long way down through history, traveling the full spectrum of thought and use from the ignoble to theignoble. Research and time are sure to reveal even more good things, but how amazing to realize that a deadly poison can end up saving lives.