Applied Trophology, Vol. 1, No. 11
(November 1957)

Lead Poisoning in Benjamin Franklin’s Time

The following is a transcription of the November 1957 issue of Dr. Royal Lee’s Applied Trophology newsletter, originally published by Standard Process Laboratories.

Also in this issue:

  • “Lead Poisoning Described” (a letter by Benjamin Franklin)
  • Symposium on the Effects of Fluoride
  • Successful Treatment for Bleeding Gingival Tissues
  • Tip of the Month (Iodine Sensitivity)

Lead Poisoning in Benjamin Franklin’s Time

We duplicate a letter of Franklin on lead poisoning. Note that the handling of hot lead type was instrumental in causing paralysis of the hands. Lead is volatile enough at this temperature, evidently, to be poisonous by local absorption.

Lead poisoning causes paralysis by the destruction of the phospholipids in the nerve “insulation,” the lead picking up the phosphorus, for which it has a great affinity, and causing ultimately a complete paralysis.

Aluminum is toxic for the same reason—its affinity for phosphorus—but is of course nonvolatile and relatively less soluble, so its effect is far slower. At one time lead salts were used in cosmetic deodorants since they paralyzed the nerves leading to the sweat glands. Aluminum salts perform the same service in the same way, and observing physicians will find many persons systemically affected by the absorption of aluminum in these preparations. (Recently, beryllium salts have been introduced [as antiperspirants], but it is obvious that any preparation must be dangerous if it is effective.)

There is a considerable increase today in paralytic disease. The effects of cumulative poisons are hard to detect until much damage has occurred, so the banning of poisons by law should be more rigorously enforced than it is. (For more complete proof of the toxicity of aluminum compounds, get the Lee Foundation Report No. 5, free upon request.)

Commercial aluminum is made in fluoride baths, so the metal is in a saturated solution with fluoride, which can be released gradually into food, causing fluoride poisoning as well as aluminum poisoning. For particulars of exactly how this may evidence itself clinically, get the book The Drama of Fluorine by Leo Spira, MD, the story of how $200 spent on a new kitchen set of aluminum created a mass poisoning of the author’s own family from the combined effects of fluorides and aluminum (see enclosed card). It took this experienced toxicologist months to find the source of poison that was progressively undermining the health of his family. You will be surprised at the number of symptoms he traced to these poisons that you are constantly encountering without being aware of the cause. (Franklin letter follows.)

Lead Poisoning Described by Benjamin Franklin

Letter by Benjamin Franklin

To Benjamin Vaughan
Philadelphia, July 31, 1786

Dear Friend,

I recollect, that, when I had the great pleasure of seeing you at Southampton, now a l2 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 opinion, that the mischief was occasioned by that use of lead. The legislature of Massachusetts thereupon pass’d an Act, prohibiting under severe penalties the use of such still-heads and worms thereafter. Inclos’d I send you a copy of the Act, taken from my printed law-book.

In 1724, being in London, I went to work in the printing-house of Mr. Palmer, 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 and sixpence. 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, induced 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 effiuvia, but ascribed 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 appeared to have some reason in it. But the pain I had experienc’d made me still afraid of those effiuvia.

Being in Derbyshire at some of the furnaces for smelting of lead ore, I was told, that the smoke of those furnaces was pernicious to the neighbouring 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.

In America I have often observ’d, that on the roofs of our shingled houses, where moss is apt to grow in northern exposures, if there be any thing on the roof painted with white lead, such as balusters, or frames of dormant windows, etc., there is constantly a streak on the shingles from such paint down to the eaves, on which no moss will grow, but the wood remains constantly clean and free from it. We seldom drink rain-water that falls on our houses; and if we did, perhaps the small quantity of lead, descending from such paint, might not be sufficient to produce any sensible ill effect on our bodies. But I have been told of a case in Europe, I forgot the place, where a whole family was afflicted with what we call the dry bellyach, or Calica 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 received the water from the leaded roofs. This had been drunk 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 and 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, glaziers, painters, etc., 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 employ’d by painters, as labourers, in grinding of colours.

This, my dear friend, is all I can at present recollect on the subject. You will see by it, that the opinion of this mischievous effect from lead is at least above sixty years old; and you will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally receiv’d and practis’d on.

I am, ever, yours most affectionately,
B. Franklin

—Reprinted from The Autobiography of Science, Moulton and Schifferes, eds., Doubleday, New York.

Symposium on the Effects of Fluoride

“The section on dentistry of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will offer a two-day program, December 27 and 28, 1957, at the Indiana University Medical Center. A three-session symposium, “The Pharmacology and Toxicology of Fluorine,” will deal with the effects of fluoride on the body, excluding dental caries, with particular reference to cardiovascular diseases, kidney diseases, mortality and morbidity rates, effect on enzymes, effects of fluoride retention within the body, and a comparison between fluorides provided from natural and artificial sources.”


Successful Treatment for Bleeding Gingival Tissues


In recommending treatment for persistently bleeding gingival tissues that are not caused by traumatic occlusion or poor oral hygiene, 500 to 1000 milligrams of ascorbic acid are invariably suggested. I have tried this treatment for many years with almost no success. Stimulated by the lack of success in treating these patients suffering from bleeding gingival tissues, I searched for a more efficient medication and found that a rutin-containing product (Rutaplex [Cyruta] A) was what I was looking for. Administration of two tablets (chewed and swallowed) per day stopped gingival bleeding practically overnight. These tablets contain rutin obtained from buckwheat. This mode of therapy may be supplemented by the addition of natural vitamin C with the flavonoid complex to accomplish the correction naturally.

Roy C. Kolb
Mascoutah, Illinois

Dental Survey, October 1957

Tip of the Month (Iodine Sensitivity)

Iodine sensitivity may be corrected by niacin (Arch. Dermatology, 71:528, 1955). Vitamin B6 and vitamin F also cooperate. (See Lee Foundation Reports Nos. 1 and 3.)

Heather Wilkinson

Heather Wilkinson is Senior Editor at Selene River Press.

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