Mercury and lead in bones: an outing to bioarcheology

Keeping a blog has many benefits, and one of them is the fact that you can share your research with people from around the world. Occasionally, this means an academic colleague from a field quite different to my own gets in touch, because they have read something on my blog that is relevant to them. It’s really exciting when that happens, because it broadens both our horizons. So you can imagine I was happy to receive an email from bioarcheologist Dr Tamara Varney last spring.

Dr Varney is the PI on a project that looks at toxic trace elements, especially lead, in colonial populations, analysing human bone from colonial cemeteries. She recently excavated the site of a Royal Naval Hospital in Antigua, and found that the bones of one individual contained low lead levels, but very high mercury levels.

Antigua is a Caribbean island. The graveyard of the Royal Naval Hospital is near the historical site of Nelson's Dockyard, in the south-east of the island.

Antigua is a Caribbean island. The graveyard of the Royal Naval Hospital is near the historical site of Nelson’s Dockyard, in the south-east of the island.

Dr Varney’s team includes another bioarcheologist, Dr Treena Swanston (University of Saskatchewan), a bone tissue-imaging specialist Dr David Cooper (University of Saskatchewan), and a chemist/synchrotron beamline scientist, Dr Ian Coulthard (Canadian Light Source). (I actually had to look up that last one too) However impressive this team is, they wanted to connect with historians with a similar interest to collaborate. Was I interested? Of course!

Ever since that first email, we have been exchanging information from our respective expertise on a regular basis, and we hope to publish something together at some point in the future. Right here, I’d like to give a taste of what a historian of medicine can do with the data of a bioarcheologist, as I feel many academics are still a bit reticent about cooperating with someone from an entirely different field.

My initial thought was that remains with high mercury levels may have come either from a patient treated with large amounts of mercury-based drugs, as was common at the time in venereal disease and many other ailments, or from a professional who worked with mercury, such as a doctor. Yet ‘a doctor’ is so general it is obviously of little use to anyone, so when I was in London to give a talk at the National Maritime Museum in April, I seized the opportunity to check some papers on the Royal Naval Hospital in Antigua to see if I could find some information on the use of mercurial drugs there.

Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua, today.

Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua, today.

The papers kept at the NMM were property of Sir John Borlase Warren (2 September 1753 – 27 February 1822), commander in chief of the North America Station of the Royal Navy from 1807-1810 and in 1812-1814.[i] The station was based at Halifax Naval Yard in Novia Scotia. This apparently put him in charge of the appointments of personal at, amongst others, the Antigua Naval Hospital. During the 18th century, Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet, so it made sense to have a Royal Naval Hospital there.

From the correspondence at the NMM, it appears that James Veitch M.D. was surgeon of the Antigua Naval Hospital, and that he was in charge of the hospital and the distribution of drugs among the patients. Veitch also published some work on medicine, most notably A letter to the Commissioners for Transports, and Sick and Wounded Seamen, on the non-contagious nature of the yellow fever.[ii]  In it, he writes the following:

I decidedly agree with Mr. Pym, as to the rapidity of convalescence and restoration to

Yellow fever was a big problem in harbours in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Here 'Yellow Jack' is shown knocking on the city gates of New York City. NY suffered a yellow fever epidemic in 1793.

Yellow fever was a big problem in harbours in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Here ‘Yellow Jack’ is shown knocking on the city gates of New York City. NY suffered a yellow fever epidemic in 1793.

health, after the cure of this fever; and instances, of men relapsing, were not known at the Hospital at Antigua; particularly, where we had the good fortune to receive the patient early, and we consequently had an opportunity of thoroughly subduing the fatal movements of this disease; by decisive evacuations. When patients however, were admitted to the Hospital, who were improperly denominated convalescent, and whose treatment had not been managed with a decisive hand; and where determinations to internal organs, of a chronic nature, had taken place, these often suffered relapse:, but such relapses could not be called Yellow fever; they were symptomatic and yielded to mercurials.”[iii]

To cure the frequently occurring yellow fever, Veitch advised a combination of purging, bleeding and mercury.[iv]

This shows that mercurial drugs were used routinely at the Antigua Naval Hospital in the early nineteenth century. The remains with high mercury levels are therefore probably from a patient who had been repeatedly and for a long time been treated with mercurial drugs, although for a historian it is impossible to tell whether this was for yellow fever or another disease. However, a bioarcheologist has the tools to investigate this further. As Dr. Varney puts it: “Given that bone is a really slow tissue in terms of turnover and healing, and that it is only affected by a low percentage of diseases in terms of readily visible lesions, the combination of this imaging and chemical analysis with historical information has the potential to reveal and verify information that could not be otherwise.” To be continued!

[i] Letters and Papers Relating to Hospitals 1808 – 1814. Paperwork relating to the building work at Halifax naval hospital, and also of expenditure at Halifax and Melville Island hospitals. There are also letters regarding hospitals at Bermuda and Antigua, as well as correspondence from the transport office. 11th June 1808 – 31st June 1814. NMM WAR/19

[iii] Ibidem, 109-10.

[iv] Ibidem, 131 cont.

Wine with a metallic aftertaste: food safety in the eighteenth century

Previously, I have written about mercury and some other metals being used as drugs throughout the eighteenth century, and we have also seen that most physicians were well aware of the potential danger of metals to the human body. Some of them even actively warned against metals in their academic work. This week, I found a treatise by the Leiden professor of chemistry H.D. Gaub (1705-1780), which appeared in the transactions of the Dutch Science Society in 1754, on testing wine for lead.[1]

Lead poisoning was quite common in the early modern period, as lead was used in eating and cooking utensils, in water containers and in alcohol distillation equipment. Moreover, lead was sometimes deliberately added to wine to make it sweeter. This caused fast and severe, often lethal lead poisoning, that was also known as Poitou colic (after a particularly widespread case of lead poisoning by wine in the French city of Poitou in the 1720s) or painter’s colic  – painters were prone to lead poisoning because of the high levels of lead in many paints.[2]

A seventeenth century view of the Rhine Valley. The Latin legend reads: "is it sweet to drink bad wine from a golden cup? - I'd rather drink good wine from a glass". Note that when applied to wines, "plumbeus", literally leaden, has the meaning of poor or bad, here and in classical Latin. Source:

A seventeenth century view of the Rhine Valley. The Latin legend reads: “is it sweet to drink bad/leaden (‘plumbea vina’) wine from a golden cup? – I’d rather drink good wine from a glass”. Source:

By the mid-eighteenth century, it was commonly known that adding lead to wine was a dangerous practice, and as Gaub wrote, governments in wine-producing countries had set heavy penalties on it. However, his own tests revealed that even some of the Rhine and Moselle wines commonly drunk in the Netherlands contained lead anyhow. For a while, it was thought that lead could be detected in wine by mixing spiritus salis (hydrochloric acid) through it. But Gaub did his own tests and came to different conclusions.[3] It turned out that only lead dissolved in vinegar became visible as a white powder or turbidity when spiritus salis was added. Other forms of lead in wine, such as sugar of lead (lead acetate), lead white, minium (red lead), and lead oxide remained undetected.

The only reliable way to test wine for the presence of any form of lead, Gaub argued, was the already known method of using Atramentum Symphateticum, a tincture of arsenic sulphur and quicklime. In order to test wine for lead, a little wine was poured into a white cup and some drops of the Atramentum Symphateticum were added. If the wine went cloudy with a yellowish-red, brown or black colour, lead was present – the darker the colour the higher the lead contents. If the turbidity was whitish, there was no lead in it and it was safe to drink.

Gaub finished his treatise with some words of comfort. Although lead pollution did occur in Rhine and Moselle wines, it was not very common because of the laws and regulations in the German lands. Wine lovers should be wary of extremely sweet wines, as well as those that were uncharacteristically dark for their age, and wines of supposed high quality offered at a very low price. In case of doubt, they could rely on the Atramentum Symphateticum test, which, by the way, also worked for butter, which in times of scarcity was apparently also sweetened with lead.

This little treatise shows that an academic physician and chemist like Gaub also applied his knowledge for very practical purposes, and wanted to spread it for the common good. Moreover, it shows the historic realm of seemingly contemporary issues such as food safety and the relevance of science for society. Think about that, next time you have a glass of wine or put some butter on your bread!

[1] Gaubius, H.D. “Over de Loodstoffen. Aanwysing Van een Middel waar door men het Schadelyk mengsel van Loodstoffen in de Wynenmet genoegsaame zekerheid kan ontdekken.” Verhandelingen uitgegeeven door de Hollandsche maatschappye der weetenschappen te Haarlem 1 (1754): 112–126.

[2] Also see Eisinger, J. “Early Consumer Protection Legislation: a 17th Century Law Prohibiting Lead Adulteration of Wines”. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 16, nr. 1 (maart 1991): 61–68.

[3] Gaubius (1754): 115.