Despite its poisonous nature, lead was used by doctors for around 2000 years to treat all kinds of illnesses. The practice started with Tiberius Claudius Menecrates, physician to the Roman Emperor Tiberius (ruled 14-37). His diachylon plasters contained a paste made from lead oxide and they were used to treat skin complaints such as sores, boils, and other infections. The Roman recipe recommended heating litharge until it went gold-coloured then grinding this with linseed or olive oil and marshmallow root. Diachylon plasters were still in use in the late 1800s and it attests to their effectiveness that they were still to be found in the British Pharmacopoeia, and those of other countries, in the mid-1950s. There was little danger from using diachylon plasters because lead is not readily absorbed through the skin. The plasters contained about 33% of lead oxide, and were recommended for treating chilblains, corns, bunions, and chronic leg ulcers. Diachylon paste is still used in a product known as Lestreflex in which it is spread in strips along flesh coloured crepe-like bandages.
Diachylon paste itself found a new and illegal use as a way of procuring an abortion in the days when this was against the law. There was an outbreak of lead poisoning among women in Birmingham in the 1890s and it was due to the paste of plasters which was being scraped off and consumed as a way of terminating an unwanted pregnancy, which it successfully did.
Another ancient remedy was Powder of Saturn, a form of lead carbonate that was precipitated by adding potassium carbonate to lead acetate solution. It was recommended for tuberculosis and asthma. Lead pellets were sometimes used in an attempt to re-open twisted bowels, and in 1926 a Columbia University medical professor, Cater Wood, tried injecting a suspension of finely ground lead into cancer patients, claiming that 20% of them benefited from the treatment to some extent. More effectively, lead acetate was used to staunch 'internal' bleeding (that is, bleeding from the vagina) in the case of women, and for piles. Lead salts have an astringent reaction and will promote the coagulation of blood by the formation of insoluble lead proteinate.
Lotions made from lead acetate were advocated by an eighteenth-century surgeon, Thomas Goulard, of Montpellier, France, who wrote a book called The Extract of Saturn that advocating the use of lead in medicine. He made his lotion by boiling golden litharge with wine vinegar. This was to be used externally for bruises, wounds, abscesses, erysipelas, ulcers, skin cancers, whitlows, piles, and the itch. Erysipelas is a streptococcal infection of the skin producing deep red patches; whitlows are inflammations around fingernails and toenails; the itch was the name for scabies, a contagious parasitic infection of the skin, often around the genital area. In the 1930s in the USA, lead acetate solution was used to treat poison ivy dermatitis.
All the above treatments were really external and unlikely to cause lead poisoning in those being treated. Not so the lead medicaments that were to be taken by mouth. Lead acetate mixed with sulphur was prescribed for tuberculosis, and pills of lead acetate and opium were given to cure diarrhoea, which they did. These latter pills contained about 100 mg of lead acetate, which was enough to cause constipation, while the opium deadened the pain of any colic. Lead acetate was sometimes used as a sedative to treat hysteria and convulsive cough.
Nothing with lead as one of its ingredients would be approved for medical
In 2000 a physician in Walla Wall, Washington state, was treating a 2-year-old child who had been admitted to hospital, and he realized his young patient was suffering from acute lead poisoning. In fact the lead level in the child's blood was 124 ^g/litre. The cause was a traditional Mexican folk medicine known as greta, and which was a bright orange powder. The parents had used it several times to treat the child whom they thought was suffering from stomach ache. When greta was analysed it proved to be almost pure lead oxide. Other cases of children affected by lead also turned up among the Hispanic communities of the western states and several of these traditional remedies, known by a variety of names such as Rueda, Maria Luisa, Coral, Azarcon, and Liga, were found to be mainly lead oxide. Their importation into the United States is now banned. These remedies were traditionally used for all kinds of stomach upsets and especially diarrhoea, which they would in fact control.
use today, but there is one condition for which lead acetate is available, and as an over-the-counter treatment. It is the active ingredient in some hair gels for men, because it will turn grey hair dark brown. Hair, including grey hair, contains a lot of the sulphur-containing amino acids cysteine and methionine; lead will bind strongly to the sulphur atoms in these and the molecular structures that form are thereby permanently stained dark brown. Nothing else cures greying hair like lead.*
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