A cutting-edge X-ray process revealed the contents of a 160-year-old medicine box from Japan containing laxatives used by a famed doctor from the East Asian country's Edo period.

Local publication Asahi Shimbun reports that the medical kit, found to have belonged to Japanese physician Ogata Koan - also known as a pioneer for Western medicine during the late feudal Japan in the 18th century - was filled with glass vials jammed shut from being unused for so long.

It led a research team from Osaka University to bombard muons to the bottle, determining that the white powdery material inside was mercuric chloride - a common remedy used as a laxative, as well as a treatment for syphilis.

A Portrait of Ogata Koan, Japanese Physicain, (c. 1901)
(Photo : Painted by Goseda Yoshimatsu via Wikimedia Commons)

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Risks of Mercury Chloride

Also historically known as "corrosive sublimate," mercury chloride is a white crystalline solid that has been used in a variety of applications - one of them being medicine. The material traces its medicinal use to Arab physicians from the Middle Ages for disinfecting wounds. Furthermore, before antibiotics, mercury chloride was also used to treat syphilis through a variety of administering methods - inhalation, ingestion, injection, and even topical application.

However, modern medicine has phased out the use of the material due to its dangerously toxic nature. Its content can lead to mercury poisoning. Acute exposure to the chemical, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), could lead to fever, fatigue and similar symptoms with pneumonitis. Furthermore, chronic exposure leads to memory loss, irritability, or other neuropsychiatric conditions, as well as tremor, discoloration, and more.

Non-Invasive Identification of the Glass Vials' Contents

Two of the medicine boxes used by Ogata Koan remain with Osaka University.

The boxes were believed to be used similar to doctor's bags which physicians carry with them when they attend housecalls. One of the chests, used by the physician later in life, has 22 vials that contain a variety of medicinal substances.

Since the vials are 160 years old and fragile, most of these containers can not be opened without the risk of destroying them. This prompted the Osaka University researchers to use a muon-based x-ray procedure at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-Parc). The high-intensity proton accelerator facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture bombarded cosmic ray muons to the materials without damaging them. In this case, the material in question is the content stashed within the 3-millimeter thick glass vial. Muons generate light of varying characteristics based on the nature of the substance it interacts with.

They scanned the glass vial marked with the kanji - Japanese logographic characters - for "Kan," which is the first of two characters for "Kanko," the Japanese term for mercuric chloride. Furthermore, the muon scan revealed that the glass vial itself was made of lead-potash glass - a crystalline material with high potassium and lead content.

In their report titled "A novel challenge of nondestructive analysis on OGATA Koan's sealed medicine by muonic X-ray analysis," appearing in the latest Journal of Natural Medicines, researchers claimed that the effort "would be a new method for nondestructive analysis of such cultural properties."


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