MCAT General Chemistry Review

Chapter 2: The Periodic Table


The pharmacological history of lithium is an interesting window into the scientific and medical communities’ attempts to take advantage of the chemical and physical properties of an element for human benefit. By the mid-1800s, the medical community was showing great interest in theories that linked uric acid to a myriad of maladies. When it was discovered that solutions of lithium carbonate dissolved uric acid, therapeutic preparations containing lithium carbonate salt became popular. Even nonmedical companies tried to profit from lithium’s reputation as a cure-all by adding it to their soft drinks.

Eventually, fascination with theories of uric acid wore off, and lithium’s time in the spotlight seemed to be coming to an end. Then, in the 1940s, doctors began to recommend salt-restricted diets for cardiac patients. Lithium chloride was made commercially available as a sodium chloride (table salt) substitute. Unfortunately, lithium is quite toxic at fairly low concentrations, and when medical literature in the late 1940s reported several incidents of severe poisonings and multiple deaths—some associated with only minor lithium overdosing—U.S. companies voluntarily withdrew all lithium salts from the market. Right around this time, the Australian psychiatrist John Cade proposed the use of lithium salts for the treatment of mania. Cade’s clinical trials were quite successful. In fact, his use of lithium salts to control mania was the first instance of successful medical treatment of a mental illness, and lithium carbonate became commonly prescribed in Europe for manic behavior. Not until 1970 did the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally approve the use of lithium carbonate for manic illnesses.

Lithium (Li) is the element with the atomic number 3. It is a very soft alkali metal, and under standard conditions, it is the least dense solid element (specific gravity = 0.53). Lithium is so reactive that it does not naturally occur on earth in its elemental form and is found only in various salt compounds.

Why would medical scientists pay attention to this particular element? What would make doctors believe that lithium chloride would be a good substitute for sodium chloride for patients on salt-restricted diets? The answers lie in the Periodic Table.