Mithridatism

Mithridatism

[mith-ri-dey-tiz-uhm]
Mithridatism is the practice of protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts. The word derives from Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus, who so feared being poisoned that he regularly ingested small doses, aiming to develop immunity. Having been defeated by Pompey, legend has it that Mithridates tried to commit suicide using poison but failed because of his immunity and so had to resort to having a mercenary run him through with his sword.

There are only a few practical uses of mithridatism. It can be used by zoo handlers, researchers, and circus artists who deal closely with venomous animals. Mithridatization has been tried with success in Australia and Brazil and total immunity has been achieved even to multiple bites of extremely venomous cobras and pit vipers. Bill Haast successfully immunized himself to a number of species of venomous snakes.

Another important use of mithridatism is methadone maintenance of opioid addicts. Methadone, a full opioid agonist, keeps the patient tolerant so that illicit use (e.g., of street heroin) has no effect. This includes respiratory depression, the mechanism by which opioid overdoses kill. This means that an addict maintained on methadone might easily survive a heroin dose that might kill someone who is not tolerant.

As a metaphor

Mithridatism can also be used metaphorically, with a negative connotation. It can be said that someone has developed mithridatism when that person is indifferent (callous) towards a negative social phenomenon due to a very frequent exposure to such a phenomenon. For example a citizen of San Francisco, a city with a very large homeless population, can become indifferent towards homelessness.

In fiction

Mithridatism has been used as a plot device in novels, films, and TV shows including, among others, Alexandre Dumas, père's The Count of Monte Cristo; Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll; Dorothy Sayers's Strong Poison; Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles; William Goldman's The Princess Bride (and the movie of the same name); and Frisky Dingo.

In poetry

A.E. Housman's "Terence, this is stupid stuff" (originally published in A Shropshire Lad) invokes mithridatism as a metaphor for the benefit that serious poetry brings to the reader. The final section is a poetic rendition of the Mithridates legend.

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