Fun Facts – Metals In Medicine: A Brief History

Feb. 26 2019

We all know that some metals, such as iron, zinc and copper, are essential for health, but did you know that metals have been used in medicine since before earliest recorded history?

There is evidence that gold was used in ancient China for treating diseases ranging from bone disorders to skin conditions, measles, and smallpox. The Ayurvedic system of medicine from India dates from about 5000 BCE and includes such metals as copper, gold, lead, and mercury.

One of the oldest written records of the use of metals in medical treatment comes from the Egyptians. The Ebers papyrus, written in about 1500 BCE (and itself a compilation from earlier sources), had treatments such as copper for headaches and the topical application of iron-rich meat for wounds. The distinctive eye make-up of the Egyptians was more than cosmetic: malachite, a copper ore used as eye-liner, offered germicidal protection; and kohl, which contained galena (lead sulphide) had antimicrobial properties and deterred flies.

By the time of the preeminent ancient Greek physician, Galen (ca. 129-216 CE), pharmacology and botany were closely linked and materia medica, the pharmacology of the day, was predominantly plant-based. Galen’s influence held in the western world for the next 1300 years.

Paracelsus, the Swiss alchemist and physician, born in 1493, was among the first to think of the body, its diseases and their cures, in terms of chemistry. He believed that the new and stronger diseases of the day required medicines that were more potent than traditional herbal remedies. His training as an alchemist may have led him to look to metals. Among his additions to the materia medica were mercury, arsenic, tin, lead and antimony, used in treating a variety of conditions from digestive issues to venereal diseases and mental disorders. These treatments may have killed as many patients as were cured and, not surprisingly, Paracelsus and his fellow practitioners were not immune to charges of murder.

The use of metals and metal salts in drugs increased gradually over the next centuries. During the 18th and 19th centuries, syphilis, yellow fever, gout, and mental disorders were among the diseases treated with mercury in its various forms. Arsenic-based mixtures were prescribed for diabetes, rheumatism and malaria, and as a general tonic and aphrodisiac. Radium was the marvel of the early 20th century; its radioactivity thought to stimulate cell activity, prevent insanity and stave off old age.

Better systems were found for screening medicines as the 20th century progressed. Currently, metals are used in medicine for nutritional needs, medical diagnoses, and in treatment. Science has established that sodium, potassium, magnesium, copper, vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt, nickel, zinc, molybdenum and calcium are the metals essential for human life. Radioisotopes of several metals, including cobalt, gadolinium technetium, indium, iodine, ytterbium, mercury and thallium, are used diagnostically in nuclear medicine.  Metals such as platinum, lithium, zinc, silver, copper and bismuth are used to treat a wide range of conditions, from heartburn and arthritis to cancers and tumors, viral infections and depression. Gold compounds are still the only pharmaceuticals to halt the progression of rheumatoid arthritis.

As you can see, for better, and definitely sometimes for worse, metals have played a significant role in medical treatment throughout history.