J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Benjamin Franklin and “the bad Effects of Lead taken inwardly”

Earlier in the year I introduced Benjamin Franklin’s fan Benjamin Vaughan, who arranged for the printing of his Works in London during the war and later emigrated to Maine.

Here’s another product of Vaughan’s admiration for Franklin: the older man’s suspicions about lead poisoning, written on 31 July 1786 and quoted here:
I recollect that when I had the great Pleasure of seeing you at Southampton, now a 12 month since, we had some Conversation on the bad Effects of Lead taken inwardly; and that at your Request I promis’d to send you in writing a particular Account of several Facts I then mention’d to you, of which you thought some good Use might be made. I now sit down to fulfil that Promise.

The first Thing I remember of this kind, was a general discourse in Boston when I was a Boy, of a Complaint from North Carolina against New England Rum, that it poison’d their People, giving them the Dry Bellyach, with a Loss of the Use of their Limbs. The Distilleries being examin’d on the Occasion, it was found that several of them used leaden Still-heads and Worms, and the Physicians were of the Opinion that the Mischief was occasion’d by that Use of Lead. The Legislature of the Massachusetts thereupon pass’d an Act prohibiting under severe Penalties the Use of such Still-heads & Worms thereafter. Inclos’d I send you a Copy of the Act, taken from my printed Law book.
Specifically, the law was “An Act for Preventing Abuses in Distilling of Rum and Other Strong Liquors, with Leaden Heads or Pipes,” passed on 3 Sept 1723. Here’s the text from a law book published by Isaiah Thomas. It required every Massachusetts town with distillers to appoint “Assay-Masters” to inspect those stills and ensure they weren’t made with lead.

It’s noteworthy that the Massachusetts General Court didn’t expect distillers to upgrade their equipment just because of market pressure. For the sake of public health, and the good reputation of “New England Rum,” they instituted a government solution. Of course, colonial New England was a highly regulated society.

Back to Franklin:
In 1724, being in London, I went to work in the Printing-House of Mr. [Samuel] Palmer, [in the neighborhood of] Bartholomew Close, as a Compositor. I there found a Practice I had never seen before, of drying a Case of Types, (which are wet in Distribution) by placing it sloping before the Fire. I found this had the additional Advantage, when the Types were not only dry’d but heated, of being comfortable to the Hands working over them in cold weather. I therefore sometimes heated my Case when the Types did not want drying. But an old Workman observing it, advis’d me not to do so, telling me I might lose the Use of my Hands by it, as two of our Companions had nearly done, one of whom that us’d to earn his Guinea a Week could not then make more than ten Shillings and the other, who had the Dangles, but Seven & sixpense. This, with a kind of obscure Pain that I had sometimes felt as it were in the Bones of my Hand when working over the Types made very hot, induc’d me to omit the Practice. But talking afterwards with Mr. James, a Letter-founder in the same Close, and asking him if his People, who work’d over the little Furnaces of melted Metal, were not subject to that Disorder; he made light of any Danger from the Effluvia, but ascrib’d it to Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen, who went to their Meals after handling the Metal, without well-washing their Fingers, so that some of the metalline Particles were taken off by their Bread and eaten with it. This appear’d to have some Reason in it. But the Pain I had experienc’d made me still afraid of those Effluvia.

Being in Derbishire at some of the Furnaces for Smelting of Lead Ore, I was told that the Smoke of those Furnaces was pernicious to the neighboring Grass and other Vegetables. But I do not recollect to have heard any thing of the Effect of such Vegetables eaten by Animals. It may be well to make the Enquiry. . . .

I have of a Case in Europe, I forgot the Place, where a whole Family was afflicted with what we call the Dry-Bellyach, or Colica Pictonum, by drinking Rain Water. It was at a Country Seat, which being situated too high to have the Advantage of a Well, was supply’d with Water from a Tank which receiv’d the Water from the leaded Roofs. This had been drank several Years without Mischief; but some young Trees planted near the House, growing up above the Roof, and shedding their Leaves upon it, it was suppos’d that an Acid in those Leaves had corroded the Lead they cover’d, and furnish’d the Water of that Year with its baneful Particles & Qualities.

When I was in Paris with Sir John Pringle in 1767, he visited La Charite, a Hospital particularly famous for the Cure of that Malady, and brought from thence a Pamphlet, containing a List of the Names of Persons, specifying their Professions or Trades, who had been cured there. I had the Curiosity to examine that List, and found that all the Patients were of Trades that some way or other use or work in Lead; such as Plumbers, Glasiers, Painters, &c. excepting only two kinds, Stonecutters and Soldiers. These I could not reconcile to my Notion that Lead was the Cause of that Disorder. But on my mentioning this Difficulty to a Physician of that Hospital, he inform’d me that the Stonecutters are continually using melted Lead to fix the Ends of Iron Balustrades in Stone; and that the Soldiers had been emply’d by Painters as Labourers in Grinding of Colours.
This letter was published in The American Museum, or, Universal Magazine in May 1790, one month after Franklin died at the age of eighty-four. Working with lead had evidently not slowed him down too much.


T. Frantz said...

It truly is amazing that anybody lived beyond 40 in those times.

Please tell me, what is the Dangles?!

J. L. Bell said...

The symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include numbness in the extremities and muscle weakness. So those might manifest as hands and feet dangling weakly (e.g., the symptom of footdrop), which could slow down a worker considerably. But I haven't found a specific eighteenth-century definition.

Byron DeLear said...

Very interesting post John! Without modern medicine, etc., it’s remarkable that most educated people---as generalists---were concerned with determining, as best they could, why things happened the way they did in the physical world; truly a period of enlightenment.

J. L. Bell said...

From The Lancet in 1828: “Under the action of lead, a paralytic affection, affecting the brachial muscles, is liable to be produced, occasioning a weakness of the wrist, denominated the dangles.”

John L Smith Jr said...

Ha. Lead not removed due to market pressure even though the toxic effects were greatly suspected. Some things never change!

Acceptable said...

How primitive! These days the government of Flint, MI poisoned over 10,000 citizens for more than 500 days and had to be stopped by private concerns. Now that's progress for you.