Target Health Blog


March 9, 2020

History of Medicine

7-up Image
By Jetijones - Own work, Public Domain,

The government banned the use of Lithium citrate in soft drinks in 1948 and it was removed from 7-Up.

Lithium citrate has been used for many decades for psychiatric treatment of manic states and bipolar disorder and as a supposed cure for hangovers at the time. In 1871, William Hammond, professor of Diseases of the Mind and Nervous System at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York, became the first physician to prescribe lithium for mania. In 1894, Danish psychiatrist Frederik Lange made explicit reference to lithium in the treatment of melancholic depression.

As with cocaine in Coca-Cola, lithium was widely marketed as one of a number of patent medicine products popular in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and was the medicinal ingredient of a refreshment beverage. Charles Leiper Grigg, who launched his St. Louis-based company The Howdy Corporation, invented a formula for a lemon-lime soft drink in 1920. The product, originally named "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda", was launched two weeks before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It contained the mood stabilizer lithium citrate, and was one of a number of patent medicine products popular in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Its name was soon changed to 7 Up. All American beverage makers were forced to remove lithium in 1948. Despite the 1948 ban, in 1950 the Painesville Telegraph still carried an advertisement for a lithiated lemon beverage.

Lithium was first used in the 19th century as a treatment for gout after scientists discovered that, at least in the laboratory, lithium could dissolve uric acid crystals isolated from the kidneys. The levels of lithium needed to dissolve urate in the body, however, were toxic. Because of prevalent theories linking excess uric acid to a range of disorders, including depressive and manic disorders, Carl Lange in Denmark and William Alexander Hammond in New York City used lithium to treat mania from the 1870s onwards.

By the turn of the 20th century, as theory regarding mood disorders evolved and so-called “brain gout“ disappeared as a medical entity, the use of lithium in psychiatry was largely abandoned. However, a number of lithium preparations were still produced for the control of renal calculi and uric acid diathesis. As accumulating knowledge indicated a role for excess sodium intake in hypertension and heart disease, lithium salts were prescribed to patients for use as a replacement for dietary table salt (sodium chloride). This practice and the sale of lithium itself were both banned in 1949, following publication of reports detailing side effects and deaths.

In 1949, the Australian psychiatrist John Cade rediscovered the usefulness of lithium salts in treating mania. Cade was injecting rodents with urine extracts taken from schizophrenic patients in an attempt to isolate a metabolic compound which might be causing mental symptoms. Since uric acid in gout was known to be psychoactive, (adenosine receptors on neurons are stimulated by it; caffeine blocks them), Cade needed soluble urate for a control. He used lithium urate, already known to be the most soluble urate compound, and observed that it caused the rodents to become tranquil. Cade traced the effect to the lithium ion itself, and after ingesting lithium himself to ensure its safety in humans, he proposed lithium salts as tranquilizers. He soon succeeded in controlling mania in chronically hospitalized patients with them. This was one of the first successful applications of a drug to treat mental illness, and it opened the door for the development of medicines for other mental problems in the next decades.

The rest of the world was slow to adopt this treatment, largely because of deaths which resulted from even relatively minor overdosing, including those reported from use of lithium chloride as a substitute for table salt. Largely through the research and other efforts of Denmark's Mogens Schou and Paul Baastrup in Europe, and Samuel Gershon and Baron Shopsin in the U.S., this resistance was slowly overcome. The application of lithium in manic illness was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1970. In 1974, this application was extended to its use as a preventive agent for manic-depressive illness.

Ronald R. Fieve, who had opened the first lithium clinic in North America in 1966, helped popularize the psychiatric use of lithium through his national TV appearances and his bestselling book, Moodswing. In addition, Fieve and David L. Dunner developed the concept of “rapid cycling“ bipolar disorder based on non-response to lithium.

Lithium has now become a part of Western popular culture. Characters in Pi, Premonition, Stardust Memories, American Psycho, Garden State, and An Unmarried Woman all take lithium. It's the chief constituent of the calming drug in Ira Levin's dystopian This Perfect Day. Sirius XM Satellite Radio in North America has a 1990s alternative rock station called Lithium, and several songs refer to the use of lithium as a mood stabilizer. These include: "Equilibrium met Lithium" by South African artist Koos Kombuis, "Lithium" by Evanescence, "Lithium" by Nirvana, "Lithium and a Lover" by Sirenia, "Lithium Sunset", from the album Mercury Falling by Sting, and "Lithium" by Thin White Rope.

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