Lead poisoning historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Aksiniya Stevasarova, M.D.


Lead toxicity was first recognized as early as 200 BC.

Historical Perspective

  • Nicander of Colophon wrote of lead-induced anemia and colic in 250 BC.[1] Gout, prevalent in affluent Rome, is thought to be the result of lead, or leaded eating and drinking vessels. Lead was used in makeup. Sugar of lead (lead(II) acetate) was used to sweeten wine, and the gout that resulted from this was known as saturnine gout. [2]


  • Lead was first mined in Asia Minor (today Turkey) about 6500 BC. A 6000- to 8000-year-old lead necklace was found in the ancient city site of Anatolia. Lead's easy workability, low melting point and corrosion resistance were among its attractions.


  • There have been several outbreaks of [disease name], which are summarized below:

Landmark Events in the Development of Treatment Strategies

  • In [year], [diagnostic test/therapy] was developed by [scientist] to treat/diagnose [disease name].

Impact on Cultural History

  • Aulus Cornelius Celsus, writing ca. 30 AD, listed white lead on a list of poisons with antidotes (beside cantharides, hemlock, hyoscyamus, poisoned mushrooms, and a swallowed leech), and claimed it could be remedied by mallow or walnut juice rubbed up in wine.

[3] [4] [5]

  • Despite his awareness of lead's toxicity, citing many contemporary authorities, Celsus recommended its use in a wide range of ointments applied to wounds to stop bleeding and reduce infection or inflammation. [6]

Famous Cases

  • Lead poisoning, was rather frequent in the 18th century, due to the widespread drinking of rum, which was made in stills with a lead component (the "worm"). It caused the death of many slaves and sailors in the colonial West Indies. Lead poisoning due to rum consumation was also observed in in Boston. 
  • In 1786 Benjamin Franklin suspected that lead might be toxic.
  • Also in the 18th century, the abdominal pain that people of Devon, who drank cider made in presses lined with lead, was referred to as "Devonshire colic". [7]
  • In the 18th and early 19th centuries, lead was even added to cheap wine as a sweetener. One of the most famous composers of all times, Ludwig van Beethoven, who lived during this time period and who was also a heavy wine drinker, suffered elevated lead levels (as later detected in his hair) possibly due to that reason. The cause of his death is still arguable, but lead poisoning is definitely one of the possible causes.


  1. Needleman H (2004). "Lead poisoning". Annu Rev Med. 55: 209–22. doi:10.1146/annurev.med.55.091902.103653. PMID 14746518.
  2. www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmc062352
  3. penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Celsus/5*.html
  4. Ali EA (1993). "Damage to plants due to industrial pollution and their use as bioindicators in Egypt". Environ Pollut. 81 (3): 251–5. PMID 15091810.
  5. Marmiroli M, Antonioli G, Maestri E, Marmiroli N (2005). "Evidence of the involvement of plant ligno-cellulosic structure in the sequestration of Pb: an X-ray spectroscopy-based analysis". Environ Pollut. 134 (2): 217–27. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2004.08.004. PMID 15589649.
  6. penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Celsus/5*.html
  7. Pearce JM (2007). "Burton's line in lead poisoning". Eur Neurol. 57 (2): 118–9. doi:10.1159/000098100. PMID 17179719.

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