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Depression Health Center

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Lincoln's Little Blue Pills

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One example: during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate, when Lincoln was said to reach over, pick a man up by the coat collar, and shake him "until his teeth chattered." Lincoln supposedly became so angry "his voice thrilled and his whole frame shook," and only stopped when someone broke his grip.

Other accounts of Lincoln in 1859 describe him becoming "so angry that he looked like Lucifer in an uncontrollable rage" or that his face became "lurid with majestic and terrifying wrath."

Hirschhorn's documents also show that Lincoln suffered from insomnia, memory loss, and subtle neurological signs like tremor -- "all signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning," he says.

"He himself said that [the medicine] was making him cross," Hirschhorn tells WebMD. "Within a few months of becoming president, he stopped taking it. That's the more interesting point, that he realized the effect it was having, stopped taking it, and was able to lead the country during its most critical time in history."

"Some of what we're saying here is uncomfortable for traditional Lincoln historians," says co-author Ian A. Greaves, MD, associate professor and associate dean for research in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "But it does help explain this period in Lincoln's history when he was quite erratic, when his behavior was not consistent with what we see in him as president."

While the dosage seems very high, "it was not unusual," Greaves tells WebMD. "In fact, it was recommended that people take these pills until their gums got sore or teeth became loose, which are also signs of mercury poisoning."

Dementia, too, can be the long-term effect of mercury poisoning, he says. "It's a fascinating story that fits into a much broader picture of how mercury was used in the 19th century. It was fortuitous for Lincoln that he was sufficiently self-aware and quit taking [the pills] when the nation needed him to function optimally."

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