Colloidal Antimony

 

Antimony

 

The name derives from the Greek 'anti - monos', meaning not alone 

Many wars have been fought over territory, some over pride or love or money. But in the 1600s a long and bitter war was waged over antimony.   

What, you might ask, is there to fight about in this apparently unremarkable element, a soft, greyish metal that doesn't even conduct electricity well enough to qualify as a true metal? It has its uses, but they are mundane: as an alloy component of battery electrodes and of pewter, and as a flame retardant. 

But at the heart of the Antimony War, which raged in France and Germany throughout much of the seventeenth century, was a more unlikely use of antimony. Some doctors of that age believed that it was a vital ingredient in medicine. The advocates and opponents of this point of view didn't actually take up arms: they fought with pen in hand, sometimes denouncing one another in terms far more vitriolic than we'll find in the academic literature today. 

It's very curious that the subject of this dispute should be antimony, because this element is actually rather toxic, causing liver damage in large enough doses. But pharmaceutical uses of antimony have a long history. In the ancient world it was known primarily in the form of its black sulphide ore, called stibnite, which the Greek physician Dioscorides recommended for skin complaints in the first century AD. The Egyptians, meanwhile, used stibnite as a cosmetic, applying it as a form of mascara. They called it kuhl, meaning 'eye-paint', and to the later Islamic alchemical physicians this became al-kohl. From its original meaning of powdered stibnite, this term came to designate any powder, and then a potent extract of any substance. In the early sixteenth century the Swiss alchemical physician Paracelsus called a distilled extract of wine alcool vini, from where we get the modern word alcohol: a long and strange road from eye make-up to intoxicating liquor. 

Paracelsus was particularly fond of antimony compounds as medicines. After his death, Paracelsus's chemical medicine was championed by many doctors in Europe, especially in France, and some of these made antimony their most prized remedy. One, a German salt-maker who wrote under the false persona of a fifteenth-century monk called Basil Valentine, published an entire book advertising antimony remedies in 1604 called The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony. Valentine admitted that antimony was poisonous - in fact he offered an apocryphal explanation for the name, saying that it derives from anti-monachos, meaning 'anti-monk' in Latin, because he once unintentionally poisoned several of his fellow monks by adding it secretly to their food in an attempt to improve their health. But he claimed that alchemy could be used to free the metal of its toxic effects and make it "a most salutary Medicine".   

The Paracelsian chemical physicians were opposed by traditionalists who preferred the medical theories of the ancient doctors like Hippocrates, based on the idea that our health is controlled by a balance of four humours. This was partly a battle for academic power, but the rival camps were also split along religious and political lines. So there was a lot riding on the struggle, and for a time it crystallized around the medical value of antimony. 

Colloidal Antimony

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