What do you think of when you hear “mad as a hatter?” For most it might be the image of Alice and her maniacal counterpart, The Mad Hatter, created by Lewis Carroll (actual name-Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). Or perhaps the disturbed, but genius villain by the same name in the Batman comics. Either way the history of this colloquial phrase is just as interesting as the characters that it personifies.
It was common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries for “hatters” (hat makers) to work with mercury, as it was used in the production of felt. Prolonged exposure to mercury can bring upon a condition known as Korsakoff’s syndrome. The symptoms of Korsakoff’s include amnesia and confabulation. This is when memories are invented and understood to be true to fill gaps in the victim’s memory.
Other symptoms include neuron loss, cerebral atrophy, and severe damage to the central nervous system. The effects of all this damage to the brain are, as one might imagine, substantial and irreversible. As a result of their exposure, many hatters suffered from tremors, confusion, and were often described as “emotionally disturbed,”
Other than the tremors, the outward signs of someone suffering from this disease included and were not limited to:
- Red fingers, toes, and cheeks
- Profuse sweating
- Bleeding from the ears and mouth
- Loss of teeth, hair, and nails
In 1869, the health hazards to hatters was made known to the public by The French Academy of Medicine. In 1874, alternatives were instituted to assuage the medical risks to the hat makers; however, in the United States the mercury based process was still in place until 1941.
While the suffering of the ill-fated hatters offered many anecdotal tales, it’s worth noting that Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter was thought to have been inspired by a furniture dealer named Theophilus Carter, who, while eccentric, did not show signs of suffering from “mad hatters disease.”