Dangers of the job

When I was researching ‘The Sentinel’, I came across the story of a lighthouse keeper who went so crazy that one day he chased his assistant around the lighthouse threatening the assistant with his rifle. The poor assistant hid away and when he came out he couldn’t find the madman anywhere. Eventually he traced the keeper’s footprints all the way to the edge of a rock that rose above the sea. The mad keeper was never seen again.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ features a fantastical character called the ‘Mad Hatter’. Many believe this character was based on the fact that hat makers or ‘hatters’ suffered a terrible malady as a result of their occupation.

What’s the link between a lonely lighthouse keeper and the ‘Mad Hatter’?

It’s the horrendous effects of living close to mercury.

A lighthouse keeper’s most essential task was to wind the clockwork mechanism which turned the light. The heavy light could turn easily and continuously because it sat in a mercury bath – spinning with virtually no friction. The clockwork mechanism had to be wound every 1 – 11/2 hours and the keepers were rostered on in 3 – 4 hour shifts to ensure the light kept turning.

Hat makers of years past used felting in their hat making process. Mercury was used to cure the felt but the prolonged use of mercury (in the form of mercurous nitrate) in the hat making process had disastrous effects on the people using it.

The trouble was, of course, that mercury is highly toxic. Both lighthouse keepers and hatters could experience what’s called ‘erethism’ (mercury poisoning) affecting the nervous system with symptoms such as: pathological shyness and explosive temper.

It’s no wonder the poor keeper exploded – it wasn’t some dire effect of solitude and isolation or some weakness on the part of the keeper, it was actually a terrible side-effect of a job he was doing to keep others safe.

British Medical Journal – reference to erethism

Until next time,

Jacqui.

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