When a raving 27-year-old man was committed to Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane in April of 1887, no one thought much of it.
But 12 days later, another man arrived at the door in much the same incoherent condition. When the men regained awareness and could be interrogated, it turned out that they worked in the same nearby rubber factory.
That summer, a third man was brought to the hospital, where he was described as “in a condition of great mental excitement, disturbing the neighborhood by loud noises and violent praying.” He, too, turned out to be a co-worker.
The chief of the Nervous Department at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons at the time was Frederick Peterson. He knew these three cases couldn’t be a coincidence, so he set out interrogating the workers on the nature of their jobs. As he suspected, the men had all inhaled a chemical in the factory’s air: carbon disulfide.
Peterson had heard of carbon-disulfide insanity in Europe, so he alerted his colleagues in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (now known as The New England Journal of Medicine) that the problem had come to America. In England, the new term “gassed” had arisen, defined in the Liverpool Daily Post as “the term used in the India rubber business, and it meant dazed.” The British physician Thomas Oliver had recalled watching as people working in rubber factories left after their shifts and “simply staggered home,” apart from themselves. The effect could be deadly. “Some of them have become the victims of acute insanity,” Oliver wrote, “and in their frenzy have precipitated themselves from the top rooms of the factory to the ground.”