From Healing Cuts to Cutlery: The History of Silver

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It’s easy to forget that that the silver found in the ring around your finger, the arm of your eyeglasses, or the spoon you use at dinner is part of a rich history reaching back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome who used silver to control bodily infection and prevent food spoilage. In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates (known as the Father of Medicine) used silver to heal wounds. In the same century, the King of Persia used a silver container to carry water to prevent contamination. Before the advent of modern germicides and antibiotics, it was known that disease-causing pathogens could not survive in the presence of silver. Consequently, silver was used in dishware, drinking vessels and eating utensils. Approximately seven decades before the birth of Christ, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote of the ability of silver to heal wounds by preventing infection. In the 8th through 10th centuries, silver became a very popular treatment in the Middle East for many ailments, from cardiovascular disease to bad breath.

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s did western scientists re-discover what had been known for thousands of years – that silver is a powerful germ fighter. Medicinal silver compounds were then developed and silver became commonly used as a medicine. By the early part of the 1900s, Silver leaf was used to combat infection in wounds sustained by troops during World War I and the use of silver as an antibacterial substance was becoming widespread. By 1940 there were approximately four dozen different silver compounds on the market being used to treat every known infectious disease. During the 1930s, synthetically manufactured drugs began to make their appearance and the profits, together with the simplicities of manufacturing this new source of treatment, became a powerful force in the marketplace. There was much excitement over the new ‘wonder drugs’ and at that time, no antibiotic-resistant strains of disease organisms had surfaced. However, over the next few decades silver quickly lost its status to modern antibiotics.

The return of silver to conventional medicine began in the 1970s. The late Dr. Carl Moyer, chairman of Washington University’s Department of Surgery, received a grant to develop better methods of treatment for burn victims. Reviewing earlier medical literature, Dr. Margraf found continual references to the use of silver. However, since concentrated silver nitrate is both corrosive and painful, he diluted the silver to a .5 percent solution and found that it killed invasive burn bacteria and permitted wounds to heal. Importantly, resistant strains did not appear. But, silver nitrate was far from ideal. So research continued for more suitable silver preparations. Silver sulphadiazine is now used in 70 percent of burn centers in America.

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