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A Different Twist on the “Dose Makes the Poison”

Life-saving potions known as “theriacs” curiously held sway for some 2000 years.

Mithridates VI ruled the ancient Asian kingdom of Pontus in the first century. The king was terrified of being poisoned—not an unreasonable worry, given that assassins at the time were adept at using plant and animal toxins to dispatch enemies. But Mithridates was determined not to be done in by poison hemlock, henbane, snake venom or any other such poison. He had an idea: Why not try to protect himself by taking small amounts of poisons to develop a tolerance to larger doses? Today we know that it is possible to develop immunity to substances; after all, that’s how allergy shots work.

Just where Mithridates, with no knowledge of immunology or toxicology, got such an idea is mired in mystery. Some accounts claim the king had observed that ducks in his realm suffered no harm even though they ate poisonous plants. He concluded that their blood must have some protective substance, so blood from Pontic ducks naturally became one of the ingredients in “mithridatum,” to be joined by some thirty-four plant extracts, beaver gland secretions and honey.

How effective was this concoction? According to the legend, very. When Mithridates was defeated by the Roman general Pompey, he tried to commit suicide by taking poison. It didn’t work! Why? Because the king had become immune to poisons, destined to die by the sword of his foes. With the passing of years, the legend of Mithridates grew, as did the number of ingredients in the “antidote.” Celsus, the Roman physician, recommended a mithridatum with thirty-six ingredients including acacia juice, rhubarb root, saffron and ginger. Pliny the Elder described a version that had fifty-four ingredients, and Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, improved on this by adding another ten, including viper flesh, believing that there must be something in it that protected the snake from its own venom.

Andromachus added something else as well: a healthy dose of hype. Not only would his mithridatum “counteract all poisons and bites of venomous animals,” it would also “relieve all pain, weakness of the stomach, difficulty of breathing, colic, jaundice, weakness of sight, inflammation of the bladder and the plague.” Potions with an emphasis on both cure and prevention came to be known as “theriacs,” from the ancient Greek term for “venomous animal” since they supposedly countered the effects of venom. Incredibly, theriacs became the staple of pharmacology for close to two thousand years. Why? Certainly not because of any remarkable efficacy. The reason was that theriacs had been embraced by Galen, the most famous of the Roman physicians, whose views on medicine were uncritically accepted until the eighteenth century.

Various versions of theriac were available, with apothecaries often making a public spectacle of their preparation to assure people that only authentic ingredients were used. This folly went on until 1745, when it was struck a crippling blow by the English physician William Heberden, who wrote a landmark monograph ridiculing theriacs. They had an unreasonable number of ingredients, he grumbled, with possible contradictory effects, unknown doses and insignificant proof of any efficacy. Heberden may have been a touch too strident in his appraisal, since many theriacs contained opium, the poppy extract capable of offering relief from pain and diarrhea. Also, some of the herbal ingredients may have provided an anti-inflammatory effect. Of course, the claimed protection from the plague and the purported cure of all known diseases was total gibberish..

By the 1800s theriacs with their famed viper ingredients vanished. Not for long though. They’re back! Only they’re not called theriacs. They are “supplements.” There are even more ingredients, and if anything, the claims are even more stupendous. How about a concoction that has at least thirty more components than the most complex theriac? “SeaAloe” offers over eighty ingredients including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, aloe vera, seven sea vegetables, cranberry juice, grape juice and pau d’arco! It even has the “bio-element,” carbon. “Remember high school science class where you learned that the body is carbon based?” a brochure asks. “It makes sense that additional carbon is needed to boost the natural supply.” Ummm, no, that doesn’t make any sense at all. There is no carbon shortage in the body. We are also assured that the finest ingredients from around the world have been hand selected for their perfect flavor, colour, texture and nutrient content! Sea Aloe has everything but ground up kitchen sink. It does, however, lack one ingredient. Evidence of efficacy.


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