Isaac Newton may have died from eating mercury. That’s right. One of histories greatest scientists may have met his end doing something that you would expect Ralph Wiggum to do. By putting something dangerous into his mouth, and eating it. While it may not have directly caused his death at a ripe old age, it would have contributed to it, and explained why he was so eccentric in later life. But why would a man of such great intelligence consume such a dangerous substance?
Isaac Newton is best known for being the first to understand gravity, and for inventing calculus. But while these two achievements are without a doubt his most famous, he was a very busy scientist. So busy in fact that he never married, or even put his ding dong into a hoo haa. He was so engrossed in his work, that he had very little time for life’s little annoyances, such as a family of his own.
Apart from understand gravity and trying to confuse everyone with calculus, he delved into light and even alchemy. Alchemy is the pursuit of creating the philosopher’s stone, turn base metals into precious metals, or create the elixir of life. It was the ill fated endeavors in alchemy that may have led to his death at the hands of mercury.
In 1678 Newton started experimenting in alchemy. As part of his experiments he recorded, among other things, what the metals tasted like. One of the metals that he tasted was the extremely toxic mercury.
strong, sourish, ungrateful
Isaac Newton’s description of the taste of mercury.
However, mercury wasn’t the only toxic substance that Newton ate during his alchemy experiments. He also tasted arsenic, gold and lead. But even though these chemicals are toxic, and even possibly fatal, it was the mercury that most likely caused his death, and erratic mental behavior from time to time. How can we be certain?
During a period of 18 months between 1692 and 1693, Isaac Newton suffered from sever mental problems. He had symptoms of depression, insomnia, loss of appetite, amnesia and even delusions. And this was when he was only 50 years old. He still had another 34 years of life left in which to develop dementia. While it is possible that some of the other chemicals that he worked intimately with could have caused the same symptoms, mercury is by far the best fit. The symptoms also closely resemble those of the mad hatters, or the hat makers who used the heavy metal mercury to form mats. But the closeness of symptoms isn’t enough to determine that Isaac Newton died eating mercury. Better analysis was needed.
When his body was exhumed they detected large quantities of mercury in his hair. These large quantities would definitely explain his bizarre behavior during his 18 months of madness, and the eccentricities in later life. So it certainly was possible that Isaac Newton died eating mercury, but the death was greatly delayed.