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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Thallium and hirsute pursuits

I am closing out the first draft of 'Misplaced Ingenuity'.  The final chapter is written, and I am most of the way through the two preceding chapters. Today, I am dealing with some strange thallium tales.

I knew about thallium first as a small boy in the 1950s, reading newspaper stories about thallium poisoners and being shushed when I asked questions.  Anyhow, I knew that thallium poisoning makes the hair fall out, and I even know why now, though this is not the place for technicalities. More recently (well, in 1978), I found this:

Thallium acetate was first given therapeutically to terminal tuberculosis cases to suppress 'night sweats'.  We shall never know whether the tests were successful because the side-effects of the treatment were much more noticeable — the patients' hair fell out.   The future of the drug obviously lay in its depilatory action. . . the chief dermatologist at the St Louis Hospital in Paris introduced it in 1898 as a pre-treatment for ringworm of the scalp, and after the First World War, it was extremely popular for this purpose.
— John Emsley, 'The trouble with thallium', New Scientist 10 August 1978, p. 393-394.

Skipping over the the alleged and almost certainly mythical CIA plan to poison Fidel Castro with sub-lethal doses of thallium, just enough to make his beard fall out, I looked at other therapeutic and non-therapeutic uses, back to William Crookes original; discovery. Then I found a great story at the National Library's Trove web site. It was a 1933 story about quacks and the like.

I think I have got what I need for the morning. Mind you, I need to scrutinise the way in which Crookes got involved with a spiritualists and attended séances with her.  Could it be, as some scurrilous types suggest, that he was having it off with her?  Or was he slightly batty on account of thallium poisoning, as some kind people suggest?

We can probably come to a conclusion on that. The man had a beard, it never fell out.  Gossipmongers defeated Kindly 1-0.

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