Arsenic is a deadly toxin, once a favourite among poisoners. Small amounts, however, mainly as arsenic trioxide, are stimulating, and were used to make old and tired horses look young and vigorous when they were to be sold. It has also been used by humans to get a more fair complexion in times and places where paleness were part of the female beauty ideal. Arsenic makes the hair lustrous as well.
For some animals arsenic is a dietary trace element. If it is so also for humans is unknown.
Some bacteria can use compounds with arsenic as respiratory metabolites. For all multicellular organisms, however, arsenic is poisonous over a certain amount.
It is possible to build up resistance to arsenic by beginning with a small intake and then gradually increase it over time. In the past that was utilised by princes and kings who lived under a constant threat from poisoners. But also by those who wanted it for its health benefits, to get stronger, retard ageing, and prolong life. These arsenic eaters, who lived in the Austrian Alps - most famous are those in Styria - could never cease eating this substance. However, in the end of the 19th century the world's interest in this practice was awakened; in certain circles arsenic became almost fashionable. But already in the beginning of the 20th century, arsenic for recreational or cosmetic purposes was forbidden, and this use then gradually faded away.
In medicine, arsenic compounds have been used in the treatment of a large number of diseases, and are still used in several instances - as for certain cases of leukaemia. In Chinese medicine, arsenic trioxide has been used for centuries. As Pi Shuang it has been (and still is) used in cancer treatment.
In homeopathy, Arsenicum album and Arsenicum iodatum are used for several serious ailments and diseases. In homeopathic doses, the arsenic is too diluted to be toxic.
The etymology of arsenic brings us via Greek "arsenikos" (meaning male) and Syriac "zarniqa" to Middle Persian "zarnikh", which denotes a naturally occurring arsenic mineral, arsenic trisulfide, called orpiment. That is "yellow arsenic" which has been used as a golden pigment: Latin auripigmentum becomes orpiment.
Realgar is a form of arsenic sulfide, sometimes called ruby sulphur. It has been used as red-orange colour pigment and for certain explosives. As it is toxic, it has also been used as an insecticide. Realgar had medicinal uses a well. It is used traditional Chinese medicine, and in ancient Greece they had a medicine called “bull's blood”, which most likely was realgar. According to one source [Dominique Arnould, "Boire le sang de taureau: la mort de Thémistocle", from Revue de philologie, de littérature et d'histoire anciennes, Vol. LXVII, No. 2; 1993] bull's blood was used by king Midas and Themistocles for suicide.
As well realgar as orpiment were used as colour pigments already in old Egypt; the former gave an orange colour, the latter gave bright yellow.
Arsenic has been common in criminal literature, especially murder mysteries from the 1900s. Some of the best-known examples are: The 4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie, Poison à la Carte by Rex Stout, Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers , The Landlady by Roald Dahl, and Fly Paper by Dashiell Hammett. Its popularity in literature has a basis in fact; arsenic is probably the most common tool for murder ever. In the 1800s, it was used in one third of all murders. It was easily available and almost impossible to detect for the primitive forensics of the time. That is different today, however; contemporary forensic toxicologists can easily find it.
The first test to discover arsenic in a body was developed by chemist James March, and it was used for the first time in the case of George Bodle in 1833. It was called the March test, and was further developed by Mathieu Orfila in the poisoning of Charles Lafarge, a French case.
"Tintomara, two things are white - Innocence and Arsenic. You have the Innocence - I have the Arsenic".
(Clara, dying mother of Tintomara in “The Queen's Tiara” by Carl Jonas Love Almquist.)
Copyright © 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.
(The lead image is a drawing of a March apparatus. It is taken from An Introduction to Chemical Pharmacology, by Hugh McMuigan, published 1921. The image is in the Public Domain.)
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