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New volume in the Heidelberg Studies on Transculturality series



23 April 2021

The book “
Taming the Poisonous: Mercury, Toxicity, and Safety in Tibetan Medical Practice,” is a rich ethnographic and socio-historical account that uncovers how toxicity and safety are expressed transculturally in a globalizing world. For the first time, this study unpacks the “pharmaceutical nexus” of mercury in Tibetan medicine (Sowa Rigpa) where, since the thirteenth century, it has mainly been used in the form of tsotel. Tsotel, an organometallic mercury sulfide compound, is added in small amounts to specific medicines to enhance the potency of other ingredients. In concordance with tantric Buddhist ideas, Tibetan medical practitioners confront and tame poisonous substances, and instead of avoiding or expelling them, transform them into potent medicines and elixirs.

Recently, the UN Environment Programme’s global ban on mercury, the Minamata Convention, has sparked debates on the use of mercury in Asian medicines. As Asian medical traditions increasingly intersect with biomedical science and technology, what is at stake when Tibetan medical practitioners in India and Nepal, researchers, and regulators negotiate mercury’s toxicity and safety? Who determines what is “toxic” and what is “safe,” and how? What does this mean for the future of traditional Asian medical and pharmaceutical practices?

The author of the monography,
Barbara Gerke (M.Sc., D.Phil., University of Oxford) is a social and medical anthropologist researching Tibetan medicine, mainly in Himalayan regions. She has been the principal investigator of several research projects on Tibetan medicine. Her current FWF (Austrian Science Fund) project, “
Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Ritual,” is based at the University of Vienna.

The volume is part of the
Heidelberg Studies on Transculturality series in Heidelberg University’s publishing branch,
heiUP. The series is committed to publishing research that investigates the dynamics of transcultural relationships in any region of the globe and includes works positioned both within and across disciplines. Visit
here to access the volume “Taming the Poisonous: Mercury, Toxicity, and Safety in Tibetan Medical Practice” and
here to access all the titles in the series.

To contact the editorial team, please write at Submissions are welcome in any of the following areas: anthropology, art history, cultural and religious studies, politics, literary studies, media and communication, musicology, and public health.