1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Calomel

CALOMEL, a drug consisting of mercurous chloride, mercury subchloride, Hg2Cl2, which occurs in nature as the mineral horn-quicksilver, found as translucent crystals belonging to the tetragonal system, with an adamantine lustre, and a dirty white grey or brownish colour. The chief localities are Idria, Obermoschel, Horowitz in Bavaria and Almaden in Spain. It was used in medicine as early as the 16th century under the names Draco mitigatus, Manna metallorum, Aquila alba, Mercurius dulcis; later it became known as calomel, a name probably derived from the Greek καλός, beautiful, and μέλας, black, in allusion to its blackening by ammonia, or from καλός and μέλι, honey, from its sweet taste. It may be obtained by heating mercury in chlorine, or by reducing mercuric chloride (corrosive sublimate) with mercury or sulphurous acid. It is manufactured by heating a mixture of mercurous sulphate and common salt in iron retorts, and condensing the sublimed calomel in brick chambers. In the wet way it is obtained by precipitating a mercurous salt with hydrochloric acid. Calomel is a white powder which sublimes at a low red heat; it is insoluble in water, alcohol and ether. Boiling with stannous chloride solution reduces it to the metal; digestion with potassium iodide gives mercurous iodide. Nitric acid oxidizes it to mercuric nitrate, while potash or soda decomposes it into mercury and oxygen. Long continued boiling with water gives mercury and mercuric chloride; dilute hydrochloric acid or solutions of alkaline chlorides convert it into mercuric chloride on long boiling.

The molecular weight of mercurous chloride has given occasion for much discussion. E. Mitscherlich determined the vapour density to be 8.3 (air = 1), corresponding to HgCl. The supporters of the formula Hg2Cl2 pointed out that dissociation into mercury and mercuric chloride would give this value, since mercury is a monatomic element. After contradictory evidence as to whether dissociation did or did not occur, it was finally shown by Victor Meyer and W. Harris (1894) that a rod moistened with potash and inserted in the vapour was coloured yellow, and so conclusively proved dissociation. A. Werner determined the molecular weights of mercurous, cuprous and silver bromides, iodides and chlorides in pyridine solution, and obtained results pointing to the formula HgCl, etc. However, the double formula, Hg2Cl2, has been completely established by H. B. Baker (Journ. Chem. Soc., 1900, 77, p. 646) by vapour density determinations of the absolutely dry substance.

Calomel possesses certain special properties and uses in medicine which are dealt with here as a supplement to the general discussion of the pharmacology and therapeutics of mercury (q.v.). Calomel exerts remote actions in the form of mercuric chloride. The specific value of mercurous chloride is that it exerts the valuable properties of mercuric chloride in the safest and least irritant manner, as the active salt is continuously and freshly generated in small quantities. Its pharmacopeial preparations are the “Black wash,” in which calomel and lime react to form mercurous oxide, a pill still known as “Plummer’s pill” and an ointment. Externally the salt has not any particular advantage over other mercurial compounds, despite the existence of the official ointment. Internally the salt is given in doses—for an adult of from one-half to five grains. It is an admirable aperient, acting especially on the upper part of the intestinal canal, and causing a slight increase of intestinal secretion. The stimulant action occurring high up in the canal (duodenum and jejunum), it is well to follow a dose of calomel with a saline purgative a few hours afterwards. The special value of the drug as an aperient depends on its antiseptic power and its stimulation of the liver. The stools are dark green, containing calomel, mercuric sulphide and bile which, owing to the antiseptic action, has not been decomposed. The salt is often used in the treatment of syphilis, but is probably less useful than certain other mercurial compounds. It is also employed for fumigation; the patient sits naked with a blanket over him, on a cane-bottomed chair, under which twenty grains of calomel are volatilized by a spirit-lamp; in about twenty minutes the calomel is effectually absorbed by the skin.