The discovery of toxic lead has always been a source of wonder for scientists. While the element has been known for centuries, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the world began to take it seriously. One of the first recorded incidents of poisoning from lead took place in January 1901 in what was then called the “Grand Duchy of Luxemburg” in present-day Belgium. A 22-year-old miner named Henri Milne-Farmer was experimenting with ways to improve the performance of his ball bearings. When he boiled down lead acetate to extract the metal, an impurity known as “petroleum jelly” began coating the inside of the flask. The substance, which was later identified as polyethylene glycol, not only prevented the metal from sticking to the inside walls but also gave the liquid a creamy texture. The mixture was later renamed “milky lead” or “silky metal.”
Two years later in March 1903, another young miner from Wales, David Davies, became the first person to be charged with the criminal offense of “wasting food contrary to the provisions of the Food Act” for eating lead-contaminated cookies. Davies and his wife were prosecuted for feeding their children a mixture of ground beans, flour, and oil that had been preserved over the winter using kerosene. A third child, also between the ages of four and six, suffered from lead poisoning and was in a coma for over a week. After the court case ended in Davies’ favor, the judge ruled that he must pay for the children’s medical bills. He was also ordered to stay away from butter and to drink milk only at dinner time.
The element lead has a long and storied history that goes all the way back to the beginning of human civilization. The story of lead begins with the bronze age and the discovery of the element’s many beneficial properties. As early as the 17th century, scientists noted that adding lead to copper improved the durability of the metal. It was also known as the “wearing qualities” of the metal were significantly enhanced. In 1657, the English chemist Robert Boyle published a book titled “The Sceptical Chymist” that purported to “answer the objections that have been made against the physico-mathematical theory of the refractory heat-engines.” The book discussed the properties of lead in great detail, going so far as to assert that it was “the most useful and profitable of all the metals known to science.” Later that same year, the French physicist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, otherwise known as “Celsius,” published a paper in which he discussed lead’s many wonderful qualities. He wrote:
“Lead is a most wonderful metal, which is why, even in these latter times, when knowledge about it has been acquired, many people are still reluctant to give it up, and seek new sources of supply even when they have enough of the metal. Naturally soft, it is relatively easy to shape. With the aid of appropriate tools, you can produce any shape that you may wish. One of its admirable properties is its ductility, which enables it to be drawn into such thin wires that the strength of the metal is not greatly diminished. When you fire a piece of lead, the rapidity of the expansion and the great force of the explosion impart a brilliant light and a brilliant flash of light to the dark, as the Germans express it. It is also a good lubricant and it is easily fused when sufficiently heated to create a uniform mass. These various beneficial properties make lead a most important metal for many applications.”
The above descriptions of lead’s many beneficial properties are taken from the Chemical & Engineering News article “Lead 101: An Elementary Guide to this Luxury Metaphysical Element,” which was published in 2001. That article goes on to say:
“Lead has had a significant influence on human civilization. Its importance in the 21st century will still be determined by its role as a common acidulant in the diet, an element necessary for good health, and a component of many crucial metallurgical and electrical products.”
Indeed, lead remains one of the most important and most commonly used of all the metals. It continues to find widespread use in industry and commerce, even after all these years. It was originally used as a component of glass and ceramics, where its unique ability to strengthen brittle materials made it a very useful addition. These days, it is still found in glassmaking, where it replaces antimony as a fining agent. In the electrical industry, lead is used in the manufacture of cables and wires because it improves the electrical conductivity and clarity of the final product. It is also used in chemical manufacturing to aid in the refinement of products such as sodium tetraborate.
But while lead has been associated with good health for centuries, it wasn’t until the 20th century that its dangers were revealed. In 1901, Georges Vacher de Valcourt, a French physician, recognized that children between the ages of four and six were especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. Children in this age group had historically been known to be particularly gullible and to put everything in their mouths, including dirt, paint, and plaster. Because of this, Vacher de Valcourt began to suspect that the rampant expansionism in French schools were the result of children being fed lead-laced cookies and cakes. As it happened, arsenic and antimony were being used in large quantities as pesticides at the time, and it wasn’t until later that scientists began to suspect contamination from these elements.
In March 1905, the German scientist Albert Schatz published a paper in which he discussed the dangers of lead. Two months later, the U.S. government banned the use of lead in food cans and water pipes, and in 1908, the element was named an “injurious substance.” The above description of lead’s many beneficial properties was taken from the Chemical & Engineering News article “Lead 201: A Continuing Appreciation,” which was published in 2015. That article goes on to state:
“Despite this early lead poisoning epidemic in the U.S., it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the dangers of this element were fully understood. In the late 1940s, scientists began toying with the idea of making plastic more resilient using lead. In 1947, the British scientist Alan Macfarlane conducted research that led him to believe that adding lead to polyethylene could significantly improve the strength of the material. He also theorized that the addition of a small percentage of the element could greatly reduce the brittle nature of polyethylene and make it suitable for use in electrical applications.”
In the 1950s, scientists were making a concerted effort to determine the maximum amount of lead that could be safely ingested by humans. The German pharmaceutical company Boehringer-Ingelheim began research that ultimately led to the creation of a compound known as “Boehringer Ingelheim Lead,” or simply BILOGEN.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, scientists were exploring new methods of treatment for a number of diseases, including heart disease and arthritis. Many different companies began research programs aimed at creating effective pharmaceuticals. One such company was Boehringer-Ingelheim, which began human trials testing BILOGEN in the 1960s. After several successful trials, the drug was approved for use in 1967 and began to be prescribed for osteoarthritis. At the time, it was an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, as well as a disease known as “polymyositis.”
BILOGEN was given the code name “OP-5003.” A number of trials were conducted in the 1960s and ‘70s using this drug. One of the most significant trials was known as the “BIPOGEN Study.” This study involved over 6,000 participants and was designed to analyze the effectiveness of the drug BILOGEN in treating heart disease and stroke. The results of this study were published in 1996 and showed that after only 2 years of use, those who had taken the drug had reduced the risk of heart disease and stroke by 27% compared to those who had taken a placebo. These findings led to BILOGEN being prescribed for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.