By Anke Zimmermann, BSc, FCAH, first published in Wise Traditions Magazine
Arsenicum Album in Homeopathy
Arsenicum album (white arsenic) illustrates better than most homeopathic remedies that what a substance can cause in the way of symptoms it can also heal, according to the homeopathic principle of similarity, or “like cures like.” This innocent-looking, white, tasteless and odorless powder has a galaxy of healings to its credit, but it also has a most sinister background of lethality.
For centuries, arsenic held a preeminent role as the preferred choice of the homicidal poisoner.1
Symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning are similar to those of cholera, which can cause severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Because cholera was common in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, poisonings often went undetected, as the victim was often assumed to have died of natural causes.
Chronic arsenic poisoning can cause heart disease and cancer, among other things, so sometimes poisoners chose the slow route of death via chronic arsenic administration.
THE AGE OF ARSENIC
The ruling classes of Italy were reputed to have made particularly liberal use of this convenient method of dispatching enemies, but the French were also rather fond of arsenic. Death by arsenic poisoning was so common in the era of Louis XIV, the glamorous French Sun King, that the period was known as the “Age of Arsenic.”
Of course, it was not only the nobility that made use of arsenic’s lethal powers. One famous vendor of arsenic in the 17th century was La Tofania, who sold her concoction called “Aqua Tofana” to disgruntled wives all over Europe, helping them to dispose of adulterous, violent or negligent husbands. Apparently, she made a good business of it for fifty years while killing about six hundred men.2 By the 19th century, arsenic had acquired the nickname “inheritance powder,”3 for obvious reasons.
Small doses of arsenic were known to have medicinal properties and were used in traditional Chinese medicine formulas two thousand four hundred years ago. In fact, modern science confirms the fact that arsenic has nutritional value as a trace mineral and that too little arsenic may also be detrimental.4 Animal studies suggest that arsenic is essential for fertility and reproduction and may also be important for cardiac health. Specifically, it may help to maintain normal mitochondrial cell membrane function in heart muscle cells.5
In 1851, the medical world learned of the practice of arsenic consumption among mountain-dwelling peasants, hunters and wood cutters in Styria (now a region of Austria). These people apparently used regular small to large doses of arsenic to help them breathe better in the high mountain altitudes and to experience greater vitality. Women reportedly used it to improve their complexion and attractiveness.
In short order, this early-1850s discovery started an arsenic-tonic craze that persisted for the next several decades. Of the various solutions of arsenic compounds that came into widespread use, the most important was “Fowler’s solution,” originally introduced in 1786 by the English physician Thomas Fowler.
It became wildly popular in the 19th century and was especially valued for its tonic and stimulant properties.6
ARSENICUM ALBUM IN 2020
With this illustrious background established, let us examine the homeopathic use of arsenic, keeping in mind the perspective of the poisoned as well as the poisoner, and ultimately applying that perspective to the year 2020.
Anke Zimmermann, BSc, FCAH
Classical and Modern Homeopathy
Sooke, BC, Canada
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