The Explosive Power of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Thunderpills,
While today Dr. Benjamin Rush is considered the “Founder of American Medicine” and the “Father of American Psychiatry”, it is important to remember that the Dr. Rush was a man of his time, limited to the misconceptions and lack of scientific knowledge that were common during that age. Dr. Rush believed that most illness was caused by an imbalance in bodily fluids (humors) and that to restore health balance must likewise be restored. One common method of restoring balance was bloodletting, however another method was through purging, either through emesis (vomiting) or with laxatives. One drug that was an invention of the good doctor was “Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills”, a drug in pill form that was a strong laxative designed to purge the body of excess humors or unwanted toxins. Each pill contained 10 grains of calomel (mercury chloride), 10-15 grains of jalap resin, and 1.5 grains of gamboge resin. All three of these ingredients were powerful laxatives that would quickly induce a violent and massive bowel movement. Hence, Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills were often nicknamed “thunderbolts”, “thunderclappers”, and “thunderpills”.
Dr. Rush’s thunderpills became a popular remedy and cure-all for any ailment; from arthritis to yellow fever, apoplexy to syphilis. Respiratory student peashooter85 is curious as to how Dr. Rush thought giving a patient explosive diarrhea was supposed to cure pleurisy as he advertised, a swelling of the membrane covering the lungs. The main ingredient of Dr. Rush’s thunderclappers was calomel, a compound of chlorine and mercury. At the time, the poisonous properties of mercury were not yet fully understood. Ancient Chinese emperors were known to ingest similar compounds to prolong life. By the 18th century calomel was the most popular drug in Europe and the Americas. One noted patient who dosed himself with calomel was George Washington. Of course today we know that mercury is a deadly poison, causing the death of the first Emperor of China, and causing George Washington to lose all of his teeth.
While popular all over the newly formed United States, Dr. Rush’s thunderbolts go down in history for one particular group of users; Lewis and Clark, and the men of the Corps of Discovery. For their journey, Dr. Rush gave the Corps of Discovery a large supply of thunderpills. Throughout the expedition, disease was common, as was constipation due to the high protein, low fiber diet of the corps. The result was that the Corps of Discovery was literally pooping their way across America. Amazingly today, historians and archaeologists are able to precisely retrace the steps of the Corps of Discovery by detecting higher than normal mercury levels in the soil, a result of the many massive collective bowel movements the men had made over 200 years earlier.