MossValley: Diseases of artisans employed in working in metals - 1836 transcript
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Diseases of Artisans
Employed in Working in Metals

(extracted from a paper on 'The Diseases of Artisans,' &c.,
in the 'Working-Man's Year-Book for 1836')

Transcript from
The Penny Magazine
(Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge)

Workers in metals may be considered under five heads, namely, as workers in arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, and lastly workers in gold and silver.

1. Arsenic

The fumes of arsenic are extremely pernicious. "It is an artificial production, and is prepared principally in Saxony, from cobalt ores. Whilst the latter, in the crude state, are roasted for the purpose of obtaining zaffre, the vapours arising from the oxide are condensed in a long and large chamber, and to these potash is added. The mixture is then sublimed, and the white oxide is obtained, leaving potash with sulphur. This employment is a dangerous, and in a short time, fatal one; and, accordingly, convicts, whose punishment would otherwise be death, are condemned to it." (Beck's Med. Jurisprudence, 3rd edit., p.383.)

The men in the copper smelting works of Wales and Cornwall are affected by the arsenical vapours arising from the crude ore, and they rely upon oil as an antidote, with which they are supplied by their employers. They are sometimes attacked with a cancerous disease, similar to that which infests chimney-sweepers. The arsenical fumes are believed to exempt them from fever. Some other artisans, as for instance, paper-stainers and glass-workers, occasionally use arsenic, and suffer headache and sickness from its employment.

2. Copper

Patissier, in his 'Treatise on the Diseases of Artisans,' says that copper-workers have a peculiar appearance, which distinguishes them from other tradesmen; that they have a greenish complexion; that the same colour tinges their eyes, tongue, and hair, their excretions, and even their clothes, through the medium of the perspiration; that they are spare, short in stature, bent, their offspring ricketty, and they themselves old and even decrepit at their fortieth or fiftieth year. And Mérat also asserts that they are liable to the painter's colic. But Dr. Christison, from whom we have borrowed these statements, observes with great justice, that the copper-workers of the present day are by no means the unhealthy persons that Patissier represents; and he says that the painter's colic is very rare among them.

Still they suffer from the inhalation of the metal, either oxidised or in a state of very minute subdivision; and in the founding of yellow brass there is a great evolution of oxide of zinc, which affects respiration and even digestion. The brass-melters of Birmingham state that they are liable to an intermittent fever, which they call the brass-ague, and which attacks them once a year, or oftener, and leaves them in a state of great debility. They are in the habit of taking emetics as a preventive.

3. Lead

The disease which affects house-painters, white-lead-manufacturers, and others exposed to the poison of lead, is called the painter's colic; by medical writers it is often called colica Pictonum, i.e. the colic of the people of Poitou; this province in France, like Devonshire in England, having been much infested with the formidable malady in question. It was clearly shown by Sir George Baker (who wrote many valuable papers on the subject in the early volumes of the 'Transactions of the College of Physicians') that the disease in Devonshire arose from the use of cider which had been contained in leaden cisterns.

In England the disease very rarely occurs at present, excepting among those who work in lead; in Paris, it will appear from the following extract, that a considerable number of other persons laboured under the malady; but these two things may have altered for the better since 1811. Perhaps the use of wines, sweetened with lead, may have caused the colic in many cases.

"The work of Mérat contains some interesting numerical documents, illustrative of the trades which expose artisans to colica Pictonum. They are derived from the lists kept at the Hospital of La Charité, in Paris, during the years 1776 and 1811. The total number of cases of colica Pictonum in both years was 279. Of these 241 were artisans whose trade exposed them to the poison of lead, namely, 148 painters, 28 plumbers, 16 potters, 15 porcelain-makers, 12 lapidaries, 9 colour-grinders, 3 glass-blowers, 2 glaziers, 2 toymen, 2 shoe-makers, a printer, a lead-miner, a leaf-beater, and a shot-manufacturer. Of the remainder, 17 belonged to trades in which they were exposed to copper, namely 7 button-makers, 5 brass-founders, 4 braziers, and a copper-turner. The remaining 21 were tradesmen who worked little, if at all, with either metal, namely, 4 varnishers, 2 gilders, 2 locksmiths, a hatter, a saltpetre-maker, a wine-grocer, a vine-dresser, a labourer, a distiller, a stone-cutter, a calciner, a soldier, a house-servant, a waiter, and an attorney's clerk." (Christison on Poisons, p.421.)

Cleanliness will do much as a preventive. Dr. Christison was informed by an intelligent journeyman that the hours of labour being shorter in Edinburgh than in London, painters pay greater attention to cleanliness in the former than the latter city; and the disease in consequence is much rarer. The use of diluted sulphuric acid as a common drink has been lately tried at Paris, and, we believe, with great success; for the acid converts the carbonate into sulphate of lead, which is insoluble and harmless.

4. Mercury

More than a century ago, Jussieu gave an account of the workmen in the quicksilver-mines of Almaden, in the province of La Mancha, in Spain. "The free workmen at Almaden," he says, "by taking care, on leaving the mine, to change their whole dress, particularly their shoes, preserved their health, and lived as long as other people; but the poor slaves, who could not afford a change of raiment, and who took their meals in the mine, generally without even washing their hands, were subject to swellings of the parotids, apthous sore-throat, salivation, pustular eruptions, and tremors." (Christison on Poisons, p.311.)

In this country we have no quicksilver-mines; but the trades of the silverers of mirrors and water-gilders expose them to the disease called by the French tremblement mercurial, i.e. mercurial shaking. One of the cases reported by Mr. Mitchell, in the 'London Medical and Physical Journal,' for November, 1831, will show the nature of the disease:-

"P. Nash, aet [aged] twenty, of nervous temperament, commenced silvering six months ago; the trembling came on three days after he began to work, and his mouth was sore in six days; and he has continued to suffer, more or less, up to the present time. 14th March, 1831 – The speech greatly impeded; the limbs totter when he attempts to stand or walk, which he accomplishes very slowly and with great difficulty; an infirm step and awkward gait: he is unable to convey any substance to the mouth, in consequence of the severity of the tremors; slight subsultus tendinum (twitching of the tendons) confined to the upper extremities; the tongue quivers; gums slightly tender; pulse strong, rather quick; appetite diminished; sleep disturbed; body wasted; he complains as if a feeling oppressed, like a load, across the lower part of the Chest, or as if a substance lay at the bottom of the lungs, as he expresses himself, which he conceived to have been drawn in by inspiration; the breathing was quick, accompanied with strictured feeling and cough. He was nearly thrown from a bath by the violence of the trembling; a large quantity of the water was driven by his excessive agitation over the sides of the bath; and if two men had not held him steadily in the water, he must have been thrown out before he was capable of remaining quiet."

A part of the noxious effects is no doubt owing to want of cleanliness; but a great part must be attributed to the mercurial vapours diffused in the air and inhaled by the workmen. How much must be owing to this latter cause may be seen from a well-known accident, which took place in 1810. Two ships of war, the Triumph and the Phipps, were bringing home a large quantity of quicksilver, when, by some accident, several of the bags burst. The entire crews of both vessels were salivated on the voyage home from Cadiz; many were dangerously ill, and two died; and the sheep, goats, dogs, cats, &c., were likewise destroyed by the gaseous poison.

What is the best method of prevention? Mérat informs us that M. Ravrio, a celebrated dealer in gilt bronze, at Paris, left by will the sum of 3000 francs (120 l.) for the discoverer of the best method of preserving gilders from the diseases to which they are subject. The prize was given to M. Darcet, for the invention of a draught furnace, by which the destructive vapour is instantaneously removed from the workshop. Many gilders have adopted it, and, as Mérat assures us, with the desired effect. He refers us to the work which M. Darcet printed in the year 1818, entitled 'A Memoir on the Art of Gilding Bronze.'

5. Gold and Silver

Workers in gold are subject to several pernicious vapours, the worst being the one which arises in the process of dry colouring, from the fusion of saltpetre, alum, and common salt. It produces great distress in the head and nervous system. These evils are aggravated by a bad posture and the foul air of crowded workrooms, so that an old jeweller is scarcely, if ever, seen. A communication made to Mr. Thackrah, by a master, is interesting and pathetic. We give it, though gloomy; as it is not by concealing the evils of trades that they are to be remedied:-

"The men drop off from work unperceived and disregarded. I am quite at a loss to know what becomes of them. When they leave off working, they go, and are seen no more. Some, perhaps, become applicants for charities; but so few have I known of the ages of sixty or seventy, that leaving work, they seem to leave the world as well, a solitary one appearing at intervals to claim some trifling pension, or seek admission to an almshouse."

Workers in silver have a tolerably healthy occupation; they suffer but little from effluvia, with the exception of some who work in badly-constructed rooms, where charcoal is burned. A master of twelve or sixteen working-silversmiths informed Mr. Thackrah that he had two or three men in his employ between fifty and sixty years of age, and that on examining a club of 100 men, he found as great a proportion of aged as town-life commonly exhibits. He favoured Mr. Thackrah with the following general remarks:-

"Their habits are various. Say two of every dozen are rather abstemious, taking about a pint of malt liquor per day, and spirituous liquors not once a month, and live regularly. Eight of the same number are men who live well the first four or five days in the week, that is, eating meat two or three times a day, and drinking perhaps from two to four pints of beer; they then appear dull and heavy; but in the last two days they 'study Abernethy,' as we say; take perhaps no meat, and water instead of beer, which makes them as cheerful as possible, aided a little by the idea of being near the eating and drinking days. The remaining two, or one at any rate, is a regular drunkard, taking from four to eight pints of beer per day, and perhaps three or four glasses of spirits in the same time. Some of this class die at thirty, but others are in the workhouse, and live to fifty or sixty." (Thackrah, p.47.)


Our transcript of an 1866 ILN article, The Sheffield Steel Manufactures, discusses the health of workers in those trades (grinding and file-cutting), and includes several illustrations.

NRCLP: History of Lead Poisoning in the World.

     Arsenic poisoning
     Lead paint
     Lead poisoning
     Devon colic
Mercury (including hatting)
     Mercury poisoning
     Mad Hatter (see 2nd para in section 'The real hatter')
List of alchemical substances
Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge or SDUK (publishers of the Penny Magazine, in which the article above appeared)

At the University of Rochester, NY, other issues of the Penny Magazine (1832-1835) are available online.

General Victorian Britain links which may be useful to find more about workers and working conditions:
Channel 4 History's Time Traveller's Guide to Victorian Britain
Victorian Times has sections for Health, and Work & Industry.
The National Archives' Learning Curve site has a number of topics listed for the period 1750-1900, some of which may be of interest.
Similarly, this Spartacus Educational page.
A description of how the working classes were typically regarded is at Victorian Manchester: Work, Health, Housing and Working People (Manchester UK site, History & Heritage)
Victorian Era Health & Medicine (does not cover occupational diseases).

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