Potency, poison cultures, and the politics of toxicity: Processing mercury in Asian medicines

This week in the CRESIDA seminar series, Barbara Gerke (University of Vienna) is sharing her research on the politics of toxicity in Asian medicines. Come and join us on Thursday, November 21st at 2.30pm in Room 2025 at Parkstead House to learn more.


This presentation introduces the key findings of Barbara Gerke’s second monograph Taming the Poisonous: Mercury, Toxicity, and Safety in Tibetan Medical Practice, forthcoming with Heidelberg University Publishing (Series on Transculturality). She analyzes how the global ban on mercury by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been affecting Asian medical systems—specifically Tibetan medicine—which has been using processed mercury (in the form of mercury sulfide) in particular medicines since at least the thirteenth century CE. How does the UNEP ban clash with local “poison cultures” and  varying “risk formulas” of mercury toxicity, which are interpreted differently by different stakeholders? I argue that in the Tibetan case, long-standing social networks that supported the making of mercurial medicines in Tibet and tantric notions of “taming” poisons impact how contemporary Tibetan physicians approach modern “science” to prove the safety of their mercury sulfide-containing medicines.

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