You may never have heard of him, but H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most widely admired and influential writers of supernatural horror fiction in American history. He was indisputably the creepiest:
“We followed the local death-notices like ghouls, for our specimens demanded particular qualities. What we wanted were corpses interred soon after death and without artificial preservation; preferably free from malforming disease, and certainly with all organs present. Accident victims were our best hope.”
Eek! Ick! No more!
I was reminded of Lovecraft last week after mentioning AOA Contributing Editor Teresa’s Conrick’s amazing find -- an article by a Danish doctor titled, “Is General Paresis [GPI] Dependent Upon Previous Treatment With Mercury?”
Check it out. To treat syphilis, patients in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had been getting 400 treatments with mercury ointment, not to mention the injections. The idea was to prevent GPI, the worst outcome of the disease and invariably fatal after a period of wild insanity and declining physical stamina. But when the use of mercury stopped, GPI – which came on an average of 15 years after the initial infection -- fell off the cliff.
Pointing to half a millennium of malpractice, Mark Blaxill and I proposed this theory in our 2010 book, The Age of Autism. The idea was that using mercury to treat syphilis created rather than prevented GPI, the worst form of the disease. And a lot of the people who were caregivers and exposed to the mercury treatments themselves – nurses, domestic help, daughters living at home who helped their ailing parents -- went on to develop mercury-induced illnesses, like hysteria, that were also misdiagnosed.
I’ve read Lovecraft for years – a guilty pleasure up there with my Forensic Files obsession I admitted to a couple of weeks ago – so I was amazed recently when everything – syphilis, mercury treatment, GPI “Asperger’s,” the caregiver effect – came together in the surpassingly strange world of H.P. Lovecraft. The light went on from reading a bio of him. (Oh, and he was a horrible racist to the point of nutty obsession.)
Born into New England aristocracy in 1890, his privileged and sheltered world came crashing down in 1893 when his father, Winfield, on a trip to Chicago, suffered "some kind of attack or seizure," according to his biographer, S.T. Joshi.
The father ended up in an asylum in Providence, where he died in 1898. "It is now clear that Winfield was suffering from syphilis," Joshi writes. "In all likelihood, he had contracted it from a prostitute in his late twenties, long before he and Susie [his wife] were married."
Joshi speculates "this whole series of events must have been traumatic for Lovecraft and, especially, for his mother." While H.P. (born 1890) showed early gifts -- "A precocious boy, Lovecraft was a rapid talker at the age of two and could recite Mother Goose poems from the tabletop" - he was too high strung to succeed in school by day, and plagued many nights by ghastly dreams. He later suffered a complete mental breakdown, and has been subject to speculation, given his misanthropic and bizarrely obsessive personality, that he might have had what we now call Asperger's disorder.
I wouldn’t pin Asperger’s on him without a lot more evidence, but the idea that he might have been mercury poisoned and showed some of the same symptoms of other mercury poisoned kids is not out of the realm of possibility in my mind. In fact, it’s well within it.
Lovecraft’s mother also fared poorly. Her health failed in 1919, capped by an epic nervous breakdown from which, like her husband, she never recovered. She was hospitalized that year and died in 1921.
All this makes good Freudian sense as a family drama that shaped the life and work of a brilliant but very dark mind. But as someone who has studied the natural history of such illnesses for many years, I see all the signs of unrecognized toxic injury leading to outcomes that are never understood for what they are.
When Winfred Lovecraft collapsed in Chicago in 1893, his syphilis infection, contracted years earlier, had clearly progressed to GPI. And GPI is caused, as we've postulated, by long years of treatment with mercury.
The paper Teresa Conrick found was from 1938 by Povl Heiberg, M.D., Copenhagen's Deputy Medical Officer, titled "Is General Paresis [GPI] Dependent Upon Previous Treatment With Mercury?"
Heiberg noticed that as arsenic and other substances replaced mercury as a treatment for syphilis in the early 20th century, GPI cases declined dramatically:
“The working hypothesis which explains best the form of this curve with its gradual rise followed by a rather abrupt fall, apparently headed for the zero level, is the hypothesis about the causal significance of the mercury therapy to the development of general paresis. About 1870 the use of mercurial ointment for intermittent and protracted treatment became more common in Copenhagen, and later this was the prevailing form of treatment through a considerable length of time. Since 1924, however, mercurial ointment has been replaced almost entirely by other remedies."
"Intermittent mercurial treatment" was recommended for up to 10 years "to avoid the development of general paresis." That’s a whole lotta mercury: Heiberg cites "the case history of a male patient recorded by a Copenhagen specialist of high repute. The antisyphilitic tratment was instituted shortly after the infection was contracted, and it was continued through 9 years. Mercurial inunction (rubbing on the skin) was employed in seances (80-50-60-60-35-60-50), making a total of 395 inunctions. Most likely, each inunction consisted of 3 g. of mercurial ointment (33%). His wife went through a similar intermittent and protracted treatment."
If that was the case with Winfield Lovecraft -- and it was the standard of care at the time, especially for those with the income to afford "good" medical treatment -- it could also have been for his wife, Susie, too. Or she may have administered his treatment and also absorbed an ungodly amount of mercury. The question really becomes, how could their only child NOT have been exposed to mercury one way or the other -- in the womb, via breast-feeding, through skin-to-skin or household contact?
This fits with a theory we lay out in our book chapter "The Age of Hysteria." There we proposed, apparently for the first time, that many of Freud's early cases of "hysteria" -- the ones that shaped his epochal psychodynamic theory of behavior -- were actually the result of exposure to mercury in the home or workplace. Freud himself noted that most of his severe patients were either nurses -- where medicinal mercury would have been ever-present in the late 1800s -- or had fathers who suffered with general paraylsis of the insane.
"Now a strikingly high [italics in original] percentage of patients I have treated psychoanalytically come of fathers who have suffered from tabes [neurological complications of syphilis] or general paralysis [GPI]. In consequence of the novelty of my method, I see only the severest cases," he wrote.
Freud's oversight would haunt the history of psychiatry to the present day, and likely the psyche of H.P. Lovecraft as well. Freud’s landmark book, Studies on Hysteria, was published in 1893, the same year Winfield Lovecraft collapsed.
As I noted, H.P. was something of a hyperlexic savant, remarkably verbal at age 2, writing stories as a child, penning an astonishing 80,000 letters, reinventing the horror genre in the shape of his own nightmares. Another of my hypotheses is that savant qualities can be an outcome of mercury exposure, that in rerouting the normal development and operations of the brain, it is not surprising that special gifts, obsessions, aptitudes, phobias might emerge.
I also can't help noticing Lovecraft's extraordinary dreams. Many of Freud's patients, of course, had dreams they recalled in vivid detail that became a basis, once "interpreted," for resolving psychodynamic conflicts. A classic case of Freud's was the Wolf-Man, whose dream of seven white wolves in a tree outside his window became, in Freud's mind, a window into his infancy and its traumas (including witnessing the primal scene) that carried directly into adulthood. That, dear reader, is gibberish, because sometimes a white wolf in a tree is just a wolf in a tree. The Wolf-Man, as we've shown, was unquestionably mercury-poisoned by treatment for abdominal problems, a fact Freud blew right past in his obsession with family dynamics as the root of mental illness.
Freud made his worldwide reputation with "The Interpretation of Dreams," published in 1899 – many of them probably mercury induced. As for Lovecraft, "he experienced horrible nightmares in which bizarre creatures he called 'night-gaunts' would plague him. He described these creatures as 'black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all.' They would clutch him by the stomach and carry him off on nameless voyages and the boy would frequently wake up screaming. Dreams and nightmares of this sort, some of them highly detailed and full of bizarre imagery, afflicted Lovecraft throughout his life, and several of them served as the basis of his weird tales."
Once again, I suspect, the half-dead oozing corpse of mercury has slithered out of its evil crypt and grabbed another innocent in its fetid talons. Lovecraft can’t be the only one. In the near future I plan to talk about others, including the brilliant but doomed poet Sylvia Plath.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism