Steve Connor: The mercury pills behind Abe's rage

He is supposed to have suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of taking "Little Blue Pills"

Retrospective diagnosis is a game scientists and doctors sometimes play with one another. The aim is to work out the true medical condition affecting a character or event in history. So, for instance, was the Black Death in the 14th century due to bubonic plague? Or did Tutankhamun suffer from the congenital disorder Klippel-Feil syndrome, which results in the fusion of the vertebrae in the neck?

Franklin D Roosevelt's paralytic illness was said to have been the result of poliomyelitis, but another posthumous diagnosis suggests it may have been Guillain-Barré syndrome. Botulism has been posited as the cause of the religious experiences of the English mystic Julian of Norwich, and the madness of King George III has been blamed on the metabolic disorder porphyria, or was it lead poisoning?

Poor old Abe Lincoln has also suffered his fair share of retrospective diagnosis. His long limbs and sunken chest are classic symptoms of Marfan syndrome, an inherited disorder of the connective tissue. He is also supposed to have suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of taking "Little Blue Pills" to treat what some believe was clinical depression. Unfortunately the pills contained very high levels of mercury, a fact now established by the Royal Society of Chemistry, which analysed some specimens found in a Victorian pill chest kept in a Devon museum. They were found to contain up to 120 times the acceptable daily intake of mercury.

Lincoln was known for his towering rages, something that may have been caused by high levels of mercury in his body. Fortunately he abandoned the medication before the outbreak of the American Civil War because the pills "made him cross". The rest, as they say, is history.

An authority on acronyms

Britain now has its own space agency, complete with zippy logo of a rocket-propelled red arrow launching majestically through the red, white and blue shards of the Union Jack. The UK Space Agency replaces the British National Space Centre – it was always a bit galling other European countries had space "agencies", while we had to make do with a mere "centre".

Yet America's space agency, Nasa, is actually an "administration", despite the fact it has often been mislabelled as the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.

It's easy to get these things wrong. Gordon Brown slipped up the other day when he said the Sellafield nuclear plant will be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Authority. In fact the IAEA is a UN agency – an important distinction if you care about these things. Brown's speechwriter was evidently distracted by the existence of the UKAEA, the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Science is rarely simple

Scientists love to make things complicated when simplicity would do so much better. Take a recent study into compulsive eating and addiction among laboratory rats. The animals were given "an aversive conditioned stimulus that predicts negative outcome" to test their love of junk food. That's a small electric shock to the rest of us.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software / Web Developer - ASP.NET

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company produces a wide ra...

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones