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The Successful Prevention of Lead Poisoning in the Glazing of Earthenware in the North Staffordshire Potteries
  1. A. Meiklejohn
  1. Department of Industrial Health, University of Glasgow


    In 1572 an extensive epidemic of disease characterized by severe abdominal colic, later identified as lead poisoning, occurred in France in the province of Poitou. Citois named the disease colica Pictonum, that is the colic of the Pictones, the ancient Celtic tribe who inhabited the area. There-after the term was used generically for lead poisoning, otherwise plumbism or saturnism. The origin of the poisoning was traced to the practice of vintners who sophisticated sour acid wines with lead oxide. This adulteration restored the sweetness of the wine by the formation of sugar of lead, lead acetate. Similar outbreaks of poisoning were traced to the same fraudulent practice in the wine-growing districts of Germany and Spain. The preparation and storage of food and drink in containers of pewter and lead glazed earthenware resulted in accidental contamination of the substances, the consumption of which caused acute and chronic plumbism. Among the most frequently lead-contaminated liquors was Devonshire cyder, hence Devonshire colic. Occupational lead poisoning was described among lead miners and smelters in the mid-sixteenth century. Thereafter the disease was observed in a wide variety of trades and processes. The subject was comprehensively reviewed by Tanquerel des Planches in 1839.

    Among the workmen frequently affected were dippers in the pottery industry where lead oxide and lead carbonate were constituents of the glaze. The disease appeared as a serious problem among dippers and their assistants in North Staffordshire, the centre of the manufacture of earthenware and china in Great Britain. The manifestations of the disease included colic, convulsions, paralysis of limbs, blindness, and general emaciation. Female lead workers suffered excessively from abortions and miscarriages and many of their infants died of fits. The situation became so serious that the Government were compelled to enquire into the problem through a succession of Commissions. Meantime the manufacturers experimented to discover methods of glazing their products without lead or with lead in the relatively harmless fritted state of low solubility lead glazes. The progress of the investigations and remedial measures are followed in detail leading to the final conquest of lead poisoning among dippers and their assistants.

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    • * The Milroy Lecture delivered at the Royal College of Physicians, London, February 4, 1963.