A prank involving mercury has “caused quite a hubbub”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A36989-2003Oct2.html at a local school. Here’s a health official’s advice:

Etter said that anyone who had touched the mercury should wash with cold water and soap, noting that cold water closes the pores, and then see a doctor. Anyone who finds mercury at home should call 911, he said. The school system said parents who believe their children’s clothes are contaminated should place the items in a plastic bag, take it outdoors and call the fire department.

Considering mercury’s “harmful effects”:http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/mercury/properties_health.html, none of this counts as overreaction. But, having just read the bits in _Quicksilver_ where members of the Royal Society routinely _drink_ the stuff, just to see what would happen, I’m reminded that people haven’t always been quite so sensible. They did it in the good ol’ spirit of scientific inquiry, but also because half of them were alchemists — mercury is one of the seven elements of alchemy.

It was a routine ingredient in cosmetics dating back to classical times. It was certainly in the stuff that “Queen Elizabeth”:http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/eliza3b.jpg famously wore on her face, hiding blemishes and keeping the skin nice and soft — by eating away at her pores like acid.

Of course, the most famous victim of mercury poisoning was the “Mad Hatter”:http://www.student.kun.nl/l.derooy/pics/hatter.jpg of Tea Party fame. Hatters “really did go mad”:http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mmadhatter.html from their exposure to the element when curing felt.

What? “Man, it’s been awhile since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland,” you say? Have no fear! Just read on.

‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

‘You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; ‘it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

‘It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

The Hatter was the first to break the silence. ‘What day of the month is it?’ he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.

Alice considered a little, and then said ‘The fourth.’

‘Two days wrong!’ sighed the Hatter. ‘I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!’ . . .

‘What a funny watch!’ she remarked. ‘It tells the day of the month, and doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!’

‘Why should it?’ muttered the Hatter. ‘Does your watch tell you what year it is?’

‘Of course not,’ Alice replied very readily: ‘but that’s because it stays the same year for such a long time together.’

‘Which is just the case with mine,’ said the Hatter.

Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.

(“keep reading”:http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/alice30h.htm, if you like)