A global history of the industrial use of mercury before Minamata.

Mad as a hatter

It began in 17th century France and spread to England by the end of the century. The symptoms: slurred speech, tremors, irritability, depression, and other neurological symptoms, were associated with the exposure of mercury in the hat making industry. Hatters or hat makers commonly exhibited the Mad Hatter’s disease or Mercurial disease. The symptoms that hatters displayed gave rise to the phrase “mad as a hatter.”


The mad hatter was Lewis Carroll’s depiction of occupational disease from mercury poisoning in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Even though the phrase “mad as a hatter” is associated with the disease, the origin of the phrase is still unclear. The phrase was used 30 years before the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Lewis Carroll’s iconic Mad Hatter character in the book was inspired by the phrase “mad as a hatter,” but the Mad Hatter did not have any symptoms of the Mercurial disease. However, hat making, was a common trade where Carroll grew up and it was not unusual to see hat makers die young from mercury poisoning.

Hatters used a process called carroting. Carroting uses mercuric nitrate to turn fur into felt. The hatters would breathe in fumes of this highly toxic metal during this process. Being exposed to the mercury vapor caused many health and physiological issues which are connected with the Mad Hatter’s disease.

The first description of the symptoms of the Mad Hatter’s disease might have appeared in St Petersburg, Russia in 1829. However, the first description of the disease in the U.S. was recorded in 1860, by J. Addison Freeman, M.D., in New Jersey. Freeman requested that the health of the working class, in the hat industry, be the first with a better working area, yet his request was discarded.

In 1898, France passed a law that protected hat makers from the risk of mercury exposure, and by the 20th century, mercury poisoning among British hat makers had become a rarity. The United States Public Health Service, however, did not ban mercury until 1941. The reason for the ban was not because of health issues, but because mercury fulminates was needed in WW2 detonators. After WW2, the use of mercury was found in many products.

An early environmental control

Great Britain initiated the first formal environmental protection law; the Alkali Act of 1863, in order to reduce harmful emissions from alkali manufacturers. Severe problems arose near industrial plants manufacturing alkalis; emissions of hydrogen chloride would convert into hydrochloric acid in the atmosphere, and cause extensive damage to vegetation.

Under the Alkali Act, Britain appointed inspectors to make sure that the discharge of harmful acids, like sodium carbonate and hydrogen chloride, were in kept in check. The Alkali Act required that 95% of the emissions be arrested, and the remainder be diluted. This meant passing the acid vapors through water. The second Alkali Act in 1874 required industrialists to apply the most practicable means to the pollution problems. This Act provided the foundation of air pollution policy in the UK for the next 100 years.

The Alkali Acts and their successors are enforced by the Inspectorate. The Inspectorate was not very effective since the industries interpreted the act by what they thought was the best practicable environmental option or the best available techniques not entailing excessive cost to control emissions. This can be a loophole because what the industries thought was the best “practicable environmental option” might not have been what environmentalists or the Inspectorate thought was the best option.

There was a lot of pressure forced upon the Government to take action because of the Great London Smog of 1952. The Great Smog was so thick that it stopped trains, cars, public events, and caused many deaths.


A bobby (Great British policemen) wearing a face mask during The Great Smog of 1952.

A committee was set up to examine the problem of air pollution and the new Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956. This act granted local authorities the power to designate “smoke control areas” in cities to use smokeless fuels like electricity or gas. The Clean Air Act of 1968 required local authorities to designate smoke control areas, forced power stations away from the cities and increased the height of some chimneys. Switching to gas, electricity, or smokeless coal brought a significant reduction in urban pollution and it was revolutionary to protect the environment.


Mad Hatter

Kitzmiller KJ. The not-so-mad-hatter: occupational hazards of mercury. <http://www.cas.org/news/insights/science-connections/mad-hatter>. Accessed 2014 Sep 4.

Neal PA, Jones RR, Bloomfield JJ, Dallavalle JM, Edwards TI. 1937. A study of chronic mereurialism in the hatter’s fur-cutting industry. <http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/19382700038.html;jsessionid=A3145BBE9D19C0C4CDAE4F82B9FF9883>. Accessed 2014 Sep 2.

Waldron HA. 1983. Did the mad hatter have mercury poisoning?. British Medical Journal 287: 24-31. < http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1550196/pdf/bmjcred00586-0061.pdf> Accessed 2014 Sep 2.

Wedeen RP. 1989. Were the hatters of new jersey “mad”?. American Journal of Industrail Medicine 16(2): 225-233.

Oxford English Dictionary, “Mad as a Hatter.”

1829   Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. June 792   Tickler (aside to Shepherd.) He’s raving. Shepherd (to Tickler.) Dementit. [sic] Odoherty (to both.) Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.
1837–40   T. C. Haliburton Clockmaker (1862) 109   Sister Sall..walked out of the room, as mad as a hatter.
1849   Thackeray Pendennis (1850) I. x. 92   We were..chaffing Derby Oaks—until he was as mad as a hatter.


Alkali Research

[Anonymous]. Lecture 8 air pollution: solutions and prospects. <http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~dib2/atmos/control.html>. Accessed 2014 Sep 5.

Daunton M. 2004. London’s ‘great stink’ and Victorian urban planning. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/social_conditions/victorian_urban_planning_08.shtml>. Accessed 2014 Sep 6.

Rosenberg J. The great smog of 1952. <http://history1900s.about.com/od/1950s/qt/greatsmog.htm>. Accessed 2014 Sep 6.