This section is from the book "A Treatise On Therapeutics, And Pharmacology Or Materia Medica Vol2", by George B. Wood. Also available from Amazon: Part 1 and Part 2.
Sulphur is obtained for medical use from volcanic districts, where the ground is in many places richly impregnated with this substance, sublimed from the interior of the earth. it is separated by sublimation or distillation from the earthy matters containing it, and is afterwards purified by a new sublimation or distillation; in the latter case, being run into cylindrical moulds when melted, and constituting the roll sulphur or stick brimstone of commerce; in the former, condensing immediately from the state of vapour into a crystalline powder, commonly called flowers of sulphur. in this condition, it is the sulphur sublimatum of the Pharmacopoeias. This, however, is still not quite pure; always containing a small proportion of sulphuric acid, resulting from the oxidation of sulphur in the process. For external use the impurity is rather an advantage than otherwise; but, when intended to be given internally, the ordinary flowers of sulphur should be well washed with hot water, in order to separate the acid. Thus prepared, it is denominated in our Pharmacopoeia washed Sulphur or Sulphur Lotum, and is the form always intended in the following observations, when reference is had to the internal use of the medicine.
Sensible and Chemical Properties. Sulphur is in the form of a yellow crystalline powder, inodorous under ordinary circumstances, but of a slight peculiar smell when rubbed or heated, of a feeble peculiar taste, insoluble in water and alcohol, but dissolved by alkaline solutions, and by the fixed and volatile oils, especially with the aid of heat. it is vola-tilizable, fusible, and combustible; beginning to rise into vapour at 180° F., melting at 225°, and boiling at 600°. it burns with a blue flame, and yields as the product of its combustion, sulphurous acid gas, easily known by its very peculiar pungent smell, and irritating effects in the nostrils. Sulphur is ranked among the elementary bodies.
in its local effects, sulphur is very slightly irritant. Taken internally, in a very small dose, it produces no sensible effect; but, in the quantity of a drachm or more, it usually operates as a laxative, often producing slight griping pains. in its capacity of a cathartic, however, I shall treat of it hereafter. it is said that, in the lower animals, it has proved fatal, when given in excessive quantities; producing inflammation of the stomach and bowels. in experiments upon horses, in the veterinary school at Lyons, it was found that one pound destroyed life. it is said also, in very large doses, to have caused gastro-enteritis in man.
Hitherto we have been considering only its local effect. it has, indeed, been questioned whether it is capable of acting on the system at large. Of this, however, it appears to me that there can be no reasonable doubt. Even when producing no obvious effect in health, it operates not unfrequently with a favourable influence on disease; but, if the condition of the system be carefully observed, after a short period of its continued use in alterative doses, evidences of its action will be detected* A sulphurous odour generally exhales from the body under these circumstances; and the same smell can be detected in various secretions, as the sweat, urine, and milk. Sometimes, when the medicine has been long continued, this odour is very strong. Besides, a slight increase of the secretions themselves may often be noticed, especially those of the skin and bronchial mucous membrane; and it is said that some increase in the frequency of the pulse and temperature of the surface, showing a gentle excitement of the circulatory system, is often observable. Another and positive proof that it has entered the system is afforded by the blackening of silver worn in or about the body, as silver coin or a watch; and it is asserted that the skin itself sometimes at length assumes a yellowish hue. Sulphur has, moreover, been detected, combined with oxygen or one of the alkaline metals, in the urine. Thus, it was found by Dr. Griffiths that the proportion of sulphuric acid, contained in the urine in health, was more than doubled under the internal use of sulphur; and Wohler noticed that the urine of dogs, under its influence, yielded sulphuretted hydrogen on the addition of muriatic acid, proving the presence of a sulphuret.
From what has been above stated, it follows that sulphur is absorbed into the circulation. But, considering its perfect insolubility in water, how are we to explain this result ? Simply by the influence of the alkaline matter contained in the alimentary canal, either secreted with the mucus, or forming a part of the bile thrown into the duodenum. it has been already stated that sulphur is dissolved by alkaline solutions. The solution is effected through a chemical change, by which the sulphur is partly oxidized at the expense of the alkali, and partly combines with the liberated metal, the sulphur acid which is formed combining with another portion of the alkali to form a sulphite or sulphate. Both these compounds, the sulphuret, namely, and the sulphite or sulphate, are soluble in water, and consequently absorbable; and it is in these states of combination, probably, that the sulphur circulates in the blood. The odour of the exhalations from the body is probably owing to the decomposition of the sulphuret, as it reaches the surface, and the evolution of sulphuretted hydrogen, either through the influence of the atmosphere, or of the acids simultaneously secreted. When the sulphite is absorbed, it must speedily pass into the condition of sulphate by combining with the oxygen of the blood; and it is in this state that it is generally eliminated with the urine. it is thus obvious that the same effects are produced by sulphur on the system, as by sulphuretted hydrogen or the sulphurets, and probably also sulphurous acid and the sulphites, when taken internally in small doses.