Did Mercury in "Little Blue Pills" Make Abraham Lincoln Erratic?

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Reconstructed Formula

A few months after his presidential inauguration in 1861, Lincoln told his good friend John T. Stuart that he had quit taking the little blue pills because they made him "cross."

It's no wonder.

Ian A. Greaves, an associate dean at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, reformulated "blue mass" using a 19th-century recipe, which included mercury, liquorice root, rosewater, honey, sugar, and dead rose petals. The ingredients were combined using a traditional mortar and pestle, and then shaped into the early pill's typical size.

The reconstructed "blue pill" was a round gray pellet the size of a peppercorn. If taken at the normally prescribed dose of the time—one pill two or three times a day—it would deliver nearly 9,000 times the amount of mercury that is deemed safe for people by current health standards.

Because the effects of mercury poisoning are reversible, Lincoln's decision to quit taking the little blue pills had extremely important consequences, said Hirschhorn.

"Faced with as great stresses as any President, Lincoln demonstrated incredible maturity, calm, and steadiness at the helm," Hirschhorn said. "He might not have had that capacity if he had continued taking blue mass. That insight may have been crucial to the outcome of the Civil War."

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