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Silver has been used extensively throughout recorded history for a variety of medical purposes. A review of the literature in English was undertaken, primarily using PUBMED, to identify the medical uses of silver before the clinical introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s. Silver has been used for at least six millennia to prevent microbial infections. It has been effective against almost all organisms tested and has been used to treat numerous infections and noninfectious conditions, sometimes with striking success. Silver also has played an important role in the development of radiology and in improving wound healing. Silver was the most important antimicrobial agent available before the introduction of antibiotics.
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History of the Medical Use of Silver*
J. Wesley Alexander
Abstract
Background: Silver has been used extensively throughout recorded history for a variety of medical purposes.
Methods: A review of the literature in English was undertaken, primarily using PUBMED, to identify the
medical uses of silver before the clinical introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s.
Results: Silver has been used for at least six millennia to prevent microbial infections. It has been effective
against almost all organisms tested and has been used to treat numerous infections and noninfectious conditions,
sometimes with striking success. Silver also has played an important role in the development of radiology and in
improving wound healing.
Conclusion: Silver was the most important antimicrobial agent available before the introduction of antibiotics.
Metallic silver was known to the Caldeans as early as
4,000 B.C.E., and it was the third metal known to be
used by the Ancients, after gold and copper [1]. Over these
millennia, silver has been used for numerous medical condi-
tions, mostly empirically before the realization that microbes
were the agents of infection. The metal was used in many
configurations, including vessels or containers for liquid,
coins, shavings, foils, sutures, solutions (e.g., nitrate, oxide,
bromide, chloride, and iodide), colloids providing fine parti-
cles, and electric colloids (introduced in 1924, which provide
even smaller particles of 0.1 mcm to 0.001 mcm in diameter).
Electric colloids of silver became the mainstay of antimicrobial
therapy in the first part of the 20
th
Century until the intro-
duction of antibiotics in the early 1940s. Complexes of silver
and protein known as mild silver proteins also were em-
ployed. These formulations were delivered topically (by so-
lution, ointment, or direct application of colloids or foils),
orally, and by injection. By 1940, at least 50 silver products
were marketed in the United States.
Medical Uses of Silver B.C.E.
Herodotus, the Father of History, accounts that no Persian
king, including Cirrus, would drink water that was not
transported in silver containers, which kept the water fresh for
years. This was particularly important in military conflicts,
where fresh water from natural sources was not readily avail-
able [2]. The ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians,
and others also were recorded to have used silver in one form
or another to preserve food and water, and this was practiced
through World War II.
The application of silver plates to achieve better wound
healing was used by the Macedonians, perhaps the first at-
tempt to prevent or treat surgical infections. Hippocrates used
silver preparations for the treatment of ulcers and to promote
wound healing. It is likely that silver nitrate also was used
medically because it was mentioned in a pharmacopeia pub-
lished in Rome in 69 B.C.E. [1].
Medical Uses C.E. to 1800
The first clear record of silver nitrate being used as a
medical agent was reported by Gabor in 702–705, and Avi-
cenna used silver filings as a blood purifier in 980 A.D. and
also to prevent palpitations of the heart and to treat offensive
breath. Somewhat later (1520), Paracelsus used silver inter-
nally and also applied silver nitrate as a caustic for the treat-
ment of wounds, a practice that continues today. In 1614,
Angelo Sala gave silver nitrate internally as a counterirritant,
as a purgative, and for the treatment of brain infections.
During this same time, the Alchemists, who connected the
seven planets to the seven days of the week as well as to parts
of the body, connected silver to the moon and the brain,
giving birth to terms such as ‘‘the silver moon’’ and ‘‘lunatic.’
Silver later came into vogue for the treatment of epilepsy
when an epileptic stopped having seizures after he swal-
lowed a large silver coin used to prevent him from biting his
tongue [1].
*Presented in part at the 25
th
Annual Meeting of the Surgical Infection Society, Miami Beach, Florida, May 5–7, 2005.
Department of Surgery, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Cincinnati, Ohio.
SURGICAL INFECTIONS
Volume 10, Number 3, 2009
ªMary Ann Liebert, Inc.
DOI 10.1089=sur.2008.9941
289
During the early pioneer days on the North American
continent, when there was no refrigeration and water needed
to be transported long distances, it was common practice to
drop silver coins into the transport vessel to preserve water.
This practice also was used to preserve milk and prevent
spoilage, without knowledge that it was the prevention of
bacterial growth that caused the effect. During the late 1700s,
Anton van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope, leading to
the examination of almost all substances and tissues. Ani-
malcules, small viable particles most now known to be bac-
teria, were discovered, but their presence in the mouth and
tissues of healthy individuals convinced some that animal-
cules were not associated with disease. Others soon began to
recognize that they might be agents of infection.
Privileged families used silver eating utensils and often de-
veloped a bluish-gray discoloration of the skin, thus becoming
known as ‘‘blue bloods.’ Privileged people also often avoided
sunlight sothat the presence of the bluish discoloration, argyria,
might become even more prominent. The prevalence of argyria
prior to 1800 has not been documented, but it was reported to
be associated with a reduced mortality rate during epidemics of
plague and other infectious diseases.
Medical Uses 1800–1900
By 1800, there was wide acceptance that wine, water, milk,
and vinegar stayed pure for longer periods of time when
stored in silver vessels. Silver nitrate also was used success-
fully to treat skin ulcers, compound fractures, and suppurat-
ing wounds, well before the time of Lister.
One of the seminal contributions to the medical uses of
silver was by Doctor J. Marion Sims in 1852 [3] (Fig. 1). Sims
became engrossed with the problem of vesico-vaginal fistu-
las, which were created at the time of delivery, especially
in slave woman, who often had rickets and deformed pel-
vises. These young, otherwise healthy women became social
FIG. 1. J. Marion Sims. Reproduced from Sims JM. The Story of My Life. New York. D. Appleton & Co. 1888.
290 ALEXANDER
outcasts because of their continued incontinence, unclean-
ness, and stench. This was only shortly after Semmelweis was
able to decrease puerperal sepsis by improved hygiene
through hand washing, but before Pasteur showed that bac-
teria caused disease and well before Lister’s successful use of
antiseptics to prevent surgical site infections in 1867. Sims
went so far as to keep these slave women in a small hospital
near his home so he could be more attentive to their care. He
tried many times to repair the fistulas surgically using stan-
dard sutures, such as silk, but these attempts all failed. Con-
vinced that silver had healing properties, he had his
silversmith produce fine silver wires that he then used as
sutures to close the fistulas. This was highly successful, the
first success being in a slave woman named Anarcha, who
had undergone 12 previous operations using silk for closure.
Sims became widely recognized as the first American surgeon
to achieve international renown, traveling throughout Europe
to demonstrate his successful techniques. He also used silver
catheters for urinary diversion until the repairs had healed. At
one time, Sims declared boldly that the use of silver sutures
was one of the major contributions to surgery in the 1800s.
Other sutures were introduced that were coated with silver,
but the success of these was not well documented.
Another seminal contribution was made in the 1880s by
Doctor Carl Siegmund Franz Crede, a German obstetrician,
who pioneered the use of silver nitrate eye drops to prevent
ophthalmia neonatorium (gonorrheal ophthalmia) in new-
born infants [4]. He first used a 2% solution, but this was
reduced subsequently to a 1% solution because of the irrita-
tion the higher concentration caused. This was a highly effective
therapy, reducing the incidence of ophthalmia neonatorium
from 7.8% to 0.13% in 13 years. Because of the success of this
method, the employment of silver nitrate eye drops in newborn
infants was widely accepted throughout the world, and in nu-
merous countries, this therapy was mandated by law and
persisted until after the introduction of effective antibiotics.
B.C. Crede, a surgeon, is credited with being the first to
employ colloidal silver for wound antisepsis in 1891, after
observing Halsted applying silver foil to wounds to treat in-
fections [1,2]. Topical application of silver salts became a
common therapy. Crusius used silver nitrate for the treatment
of burn injuries in the 1890s, well before its recent rediscovery.
Vonnaegele realized that the antibacterial effects of silver were
attributable primarily to the silver ion, and did systematic
studies that led to the finding that silver was an effective anti-
microbial agent for almost all unicellular organisms (at least 650
species), but frequently not against mold or parasites [5]. Silver
also had another use in medicine during the 19
th
Century, in
that Konrad Ro
¨ntgen discovered in 1895 that X-rays activated
silver halide crystals, making it possible to record radiographic
images.
Medical Uses 1900–1940
Halsted was one of the first American surgeons to advocate
the use of silver foil for wound dressings, and silver sutures
often were used in surgical incisions to prevent infections. The
use of silver for ophthalmologic treatment was extended con-
siderably. Roe [6] used a colloidal form of silver in the successful
treatment of infected corneal ulcers, interstitial keratitis, ble-
pharitis, and dacrocystitis. Colloidal silver also was reported to
be effective treatment for puerperal sepsis, staphylococcal sep-
sis, tonsillitis, acute epididymitis, and other infectious diseases
[7–9].
Between 1900 and 1940, tens of thousands of patients con-
sumed colloidal silver, and several million doses of silver were
given intravenously. Whereas such therapy generally is safe, it
was shown that high doses of silver, when given parenterally,
could cause convulsions or even death, and that oral adminis-
tration of huge doses could cause gastrointestinal disturbances.
Argyria
Argyria, the deposition of silver in normal skin and other
tissues, came to be a known complication of silver therapy.
Because of this and the increasing use of silver for medical
therapy, the American Silver Producers Association recruited
W.R. Hill and D.M. Pillsbury to examine the incidence and
consequences of argyria [1]. They searched the world litera-
ture and were able to find 357 cases that had occurred by
1939. The earliest cases were recorded in the 1700s. It became
apparent that silver compounds administered by any route
except the unbroken skin could produce argyria when used
for a sufficiently long period of time. However, chronic argyria
appeared to cause no pathologic alterations of the affected or-
gans and to have no important physiologic consequences. In
clinical practice, the gastrointestinal tract probably was the
most important site to absorb silver. Once in the body, silver
can be deposited in the majority of tissues, nerve tissue and
skeletal muscle excepted. Two hundred thirty-nine of the 357
cases of argyria occurred as the result of silver given for
medical indications. The remainder was related primarily to
industrial uses such as mining and refining. In only 16 of the
239 cases where silver was given for medical indications had it
been used for less than one year, and most of the patients with
argyria had taken silver for a much longer time, as long as 20
years. Silver nitrate was responsible for 49% of these cases. The
total dose of silver needed to cause argyria with silver ars-
phenamine was approximately 6 g, or 0.9 g of metallic silver. In
one interesting case, the only contact with silver was when
silver structures were used to repair a hernia.
Recommended Uses of Silver by the 20
th
Century
Over time, the well-established indications for the effective
use of silver were for water purification, wound dressings for
the promotion of healing, the prevention and treatment of
infection, dental hygiene (the prevention and correction of
pyorrhea, gingivitis, and bad breath), eye conditions (pri-
marily the prevention of ophthalmia neonatorium), and other
infectious complications.
Less clear evidence of effectiveness (possibly effective) exists
for use for epilepsy and central nervous system disorders, a
variety of digestive disorders, as a tonic in old age or disability,
and for the treatment of arthritis, hemorrhoids, dandruff, and
warts. Silver also was recommended for a wide variety of other
diseases where effectiveness was questionable. These included
diabetes mellitus, obesity, colds, psoriasis, allergies, and many
others.
Conclusions
Historically, silver has been a major therapeutic agent in
medicine, especially in infectious disease, including surgical
infections. Its risk:benefit ratio is advantageous.
SILVER IN MEDICINE 291
Author Disclosure Statement
No conflicting financial interests exist.
References
1. Hill WR, Pillsbury DM. Argyria–The Pharmacology of Silver.
Baltimore. Williams & Wilkins, 1939.
2. Grier N. Silver and its compounds. In: Block SS, ed. Disinfec-
tion, Sterilization and Preservation. Philadelphia. Lea & Febi-
ger, 1968:375–398.
3. Sims MJ. The Story of My Life. Marion-Sims H, ed. New York.
D. Appleton & Co., 1884.
4. Schneider G. Silver nitrate prophylaxis. Can Med Assoc J
1984;131:193–196.
5. Searle AB. Colloids as germicides and disinfectants. In: The
Use of Colloids in Health and Disease. London. Constable &
Co., 1920:67–111.
6. Roe AL. Collosol argentum and its ophthalmic uses. Br Med J
1915;16:104.
7. Duhamel BG. Electric metallic colloids and their therapeutic
applications. Lancet 1912;1:89–90.
8. Sanderson-Wells TH. A case of puerperal septicaemia suc-
cessfully treated with intravenous injections of collosol ar-
gentum. Lancet 1916;1:258–259.
9. Van Amber Brown G. Colloidal silver in sepsis. Am J Obstet
Dis Women Childr 1916;20:136–143.
Address correspondence to:
Dr. J. Wesley Alexander
Department of Surgery
University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
231 Albert Sabin
Cincinnati, OH 45267-0558
E-mail: jwesley.alexander@uc.edu
292 ALEXANDER
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