What is the Purpose of an Antimonial Cup?

An antimonial cup is cast from several metals including antimony. One of the six remaining in existence is believed to have belonged to Captain James Cook. So what were they used for?

In the 16th century antimony compounds were popular for the treatment of a variety of diseases. One of the main proponents of its use was Paracelsus. However, after a number of deaths in Paris, the use of antimony was banned by Parlement. However, so strong was the mythos of it’s use, many still sought to use it. To avoid the ban, they used began using cups made from antimony. When an acidic white wine was left in the cup for 24 hours the antimony would leach out, reacting with tartaric acod in the wine to form antimony tartrate (in a potentially lethal dose).

It’s still not clear why Captain Cook might have been using an antimonial cup, but it certainly wouldn’t be my choice of beverage container. Still, although antimonial compounds proved unsuccessful in the treatment of many diseases throughout history, some have been shown to be effective in the treatment of leishmaniasis, one of the most prevalent communicable diseases in the world.

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