Mithridatism by Roxanne Palmer


Mithridatism [mith-ri-dey-tiz-uhm] is the practice of protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts. The word derives from Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus (modern-day Turkey), who so feared being poisoned that he regularly ingested small doses, aiming to develop immunity. Having been defeated by Roman general Pompey, legend has it that Mithridates tried to commit suicide using poison but failed because of his immunity and so had to resort to having a mercenary run him through with his sword.

There are only a few practical uses of mithridatism. It can be used by zoo handlers, researchers, and circus artists who deal closely with venomous animals. Mithridatization has been tried with success in Australia and Brazil and total immunity has been achieved even to multiple bites of extremely venomous cobras and pit vipers. Venomous snake handler Bill Haast used this method. Snake handlers from Burma tattoo themselves with snake venom for the same reason. Mithridatism is also used to treat peanut allergies.

It has been suggested that Russian mystic Rasputin’s survival of a poisoning attempt was due to mithridatism, but this has not been proven. Indian epics talk about this practice too. It has been said that, during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya (320-298 BCE), there was a practice of selecting beautiful girls and administering poison in small amounts until they grew up, thus making them insensitive to poison. These maidens were called vishakanyas (visha = poison, kanya = maiden). It was believed that making love with vishakanyas can result in death of their partners, hence they were employed to kill enemies.

It is important to note that this practice is not effective against all types of poison. While some (primarily natural) poisons, such as poisonous venoms and tree extracts, can have an immunity built up in this fashion, other (primarily synthetic or base chemical) poisons, such as cyanide, will either pass through the system without leaving any lasting immunity or will build up in the system to lethal levels over time. Certain toxic substances, such as hydrofluoric acid and heavy metals, are either lethal or have little to no effect (or may even be beneficial in low doses, but in such a way as to have no effect on later doses at higher levels), and thus cannot be used in this way at all.

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