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Mines, Mercury, and Medicine By Michael A. Shea, MD Leon P. Fox Medical History Committee


Twelve miles south of San Jose lies a 3,500 acre site that was once known as the Almaden Quicksilver Mine. Time and nature have covered up much of the operative equipment of the once thriving mercury mine. Founded in 1845, the mine produced over one million flasks of mercury in its more than 100 years of operation. It was the second most productive mercury mine in the world. The number one ranking belongs to the mine in Almaden, Spain. Andres Castillero, a Mexican cavalry officer, was the first non-native to discover that the mine contained mercury. He did this with the help of the Ohlone Indians in 1845. He was looking for financial gain, as mercury was needed to mine silver in Mexico. This proved impossible for him, due to his military obligation in Mexico. Future owners of the mine knew that mercury was necessary to recover gold in the United States. This was the basis for Almaden’s success and the high price that mercury commanded. A virtual city soon grew up around the quicksilver mine. It consisted of three sections: Spanishtown, Englishtown, and the Hacienda. Miners from Mexico, Chile, and California lived in Spanishtown. Cornish miners, known as “cousin jacks” (from Cornwall, England) lived in Englishtown. The Hacienda contained the reduction works for recovering mercury from the ore (cinnabar). The company manager also lived in this area, along with other administrators and even some of the miners who worked the reduction plant. At its peak, over 3,000 people lived in this community. There were Catholic and Protestant churches, a school consisting of eight grades, a general merchandise store, a firehouse, and an apothecary shop where medicines were sold at cost. Other facilities included: a barber shop, a cantina for billiards and card games, a bakery, shoemaker, a second hand store, library, and social hall. Miners rented their homes for five dollars a month and paid fifty cents a month for water. They worked 10-hour shifts, six days a week, and received $40-$75 per month. The process of mercury extraction was a simple procedure and took advantage of it being a liquid at room temperature. Cinnabar (mercurous sulfide) was heated until the mercury vaporized. After it was condensed by cooling, it was collected in eight-by-eighteen-inch iron flasks. Each flask contained 75 pounds of mercury. It was shipped by rail to the Alviso port and from there, across the United States and the world.


Mercury, in any form, is poisonous. It can affect the central nervous system, the gastrointestinal system, and the renal system. It exists in three forms: (1) elemental mercury, (2) inorganic salts, and (3) organic compounds (methylmercury). Absorption from the gastrointestinal tract is zero with elemental mercury, low with mercury compounds, but 90% from organic mercury. Absorption can also be from inhalation of mercury vapors via the lungs 30 | THE BULLETIN | MAY/JUNE 2014

and even from chronic epidermal contact. Acute exposure symptoms include: metallic taste, excess salivation, thirst, burning around the mouth, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Chronic exposure symptoms consist of ataxia, tremors, convulsions, depression, and weakness. It is to be noted that these forms of mercury exposure can have overlapping symptoms. For example, the body can convert part of the vaporized elemental mercury into inorganic mercury in red blood cells, thus giving symptoms of each form. Vaporized mercury absorbed through the lungs can enter the central nervous system with corresponding side affects. The Ohlone Indians used the vermillion form of cinnabar (ground powder mixed with water) and applied it to their skin for ceremonies and rituals. Absorption over time led to symptoms of tremors, personality changes, and ataxia. They warned Castillero of these occurrences when guiding him to the cinnabar in 1845. For the miners, the exposure came mainly from the inhalation of the mercury vapor. A miner with increased salivation was temporarily removed from the reduction works until his body could clear itself of the mercury.


Dr. S. W. Winn

Dr. Underwood Hall, Jr.

In 1871, General Manager James B. Randal established the first industrial medicine department in California. A miners’ fund was the source of the finances. Each miner paid one dollar per month into the fund. This covered the salaries of the resident physician and the pharmacist. The only extra cost to the miner was prescription medication. Doctor calls started slowly because of the tendency of the miners to treat ailments with home remedies. Some examples were: (1) sulfur and molasses to all members of the family as a blood tonic and purifier, (2) asafetida (stinking gum) used orally to treat coughs and influenzas. It was also made into a paste and hung around a child’s neck for treatment and as a preventive measure for the common cold. It may have worked in the latter capacity as it had a terrible odor and certainly could have kept people from coming in contact with the child, (3) mustard plaster was applied to the chest of someone with a cold and cough. This was left on until the skin became hot and red; and (4) garlic, brown sugar, vinegar, and honey added

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