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Copper For Medical Use

The first recorded medical use of copper is found in the Smith Papyrus, one of the oldest books known. The Papyrus is an Egyptian medical text, written between 2600 and 2200 B.C., which records the use of copper to sterilize chest wounds and to sterilize drinking water. Other early reports of copper's medicinal uses are found in the Ebers Papyrus, written around 1500 B.C. The Ebers Papyrus documents medicine practiced in ancient Egypt and in other cultures that flourished many centuries earlier. Copper compounds were recommended for headaches, trembling of the limbs (perhaps referring to epilepsy or St. Vitus Dance), burn wounds, itching and certain growths in the neck, some of which were probably boils. Forms of copper used for the treatment of disease ranged from metallic copper splinters and shavings to various naturally occurring copper salts and oxides. A green pigment is spoken of which was probably the mineral, malachite, a form of copper carbonate. It could also have been chrysocolla, a copper silicate, or even copper chloride, which forms on copper exposed to seawater. In the first century A.D., Dioscorides, in his book De Materia Medica, described a method of making another green pigment known as verdigris by exposing metallic copper to the vapors of boiling vinegar. In this process, blue-green copper acetate forms on the copper surface. Verdigris and blue vitriol (copper sulfate) were used, among other things, in remedies for eye ailments such as bloodshot eyes, inflamed or bleary eyes, fat in the eyes (trachoma?), and cataracts.

In the Hippocratic Collection (named for, although not entirely written by, the Greek physician Hippocrates, 460 to 380 B.C.), copper is recommended for the treatment of leg ulcers associated with varicose veins. To prevent infection of fresh wounds, the Greeks sprinkled a dry powder composed of copper oxide and copper sulfate on the wound. Another antiseptic wound treatment at the time was a boiled mixture of honey and red copper oxide.

The Greeks had easy access to copper since the metal was readily available on the island of Kypros (Cyprus) from which the Latin name for copper, cuprum, is derived. By the time the Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus began practicing medicine, during the reign of Tiberius (14 to 37 A.D.), copper and its derivatives had been firmly established as an important drug in the medical practitioner's pharmacopoeia.

In Celsus' series, De Medicina, books one through six list many purposes for which copper was used together with the preparation and the form of copper most effective for each ailment. For the treatment of venereal disease, for example, Celsus prescribed a remedy consisting of pepper, myrrh, saffron, cooked antimony sulfide, and copper oxide. These were first pounded together in dry wine and when dry, once again pounded together in raisin wine and heated until dry. For a non-healing chronic ulcer, treatment consisted of copper oxide and other ingredients including enough rose oil to give a soft consistency.

Pliny (23 to 79 A.D.) described a number of remedies involving copper. Black copper oxide was given with honey to remove intestinal worms. Diluted and injected as drops into nostrils, it cleared the head and, when taken with honey or honey water, it purged the stomach. It was given for eye roughness, eye pain and mistiness, and ulceration of the mouth. It was blown into the ears to relieve ear problems.

In the New World the Aztecs also used copper for medical purposes. Don Francisco de Mendoza commissioned two learned Aztec Indian physicians to record the pharmacological treatments known by the Aztecs at the time of the Conquest. For the treatment of Faucium Calor (literally, heat of the throat, or, sore throat) they prescribed gargling with a mixture of ingredients containing copper.

Copper was also employed in ancient India and Persia to treat lung diseases. The tenth century book, Liber Fundamentorum Pharmacologiae describes the use of copper compounds for medicinal purposes in ancient Persia. Powdered malachite was sprinkled on boils, copper acetate as well as and copper oxide were used for diseases of the eye and for the elimination of yellow bile. Nomadic Mongolian tribes treated and healed ulcers of venereal origin with orally administered copper sulfate.

Turning to more modern times, the first observation of coppers role in the immune system was published in 1867 when it was reported that, during the cholera epidemics in Paris of 1832, 1849 and 1852, copper workers were immune to the disease. More recently coppers role in the immune system has been supported by observations that individuals suffering from Menke's disease (an inherited disease in which there is defective copper absorption and metabolism) generally die of immune system-related phenomena and other infections. Further, animals deficient in copper have been shown to have increased susceptibility to bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella and Listeria. Evidence such as this has led researchers to suggest strongly that copper compounds not only cure disease but also aid in the prevention of disease.

In 1885, the French physician, Luton, reported on using copper acetate in his practice to treat arthritic patients. For external application he made a salve of hogs lard and 30% neutral copper acetate. For internal treatment, he used pills containing 10 mg. of copper acetate. In 1895, Kobert published his review of the pharmacological actions of copper compounds. Copper arsenate had been used to treat acute and chronic diarrhea as well as dysentery and cholera. A variety of inorganic copper preparations were found to be effective in treating chronic adenitis, eczema, impetigo, scorphulosis, tubercular infections, lupus, syphilis, anemias, chorea and facial neuralgia. An organic complex of copper developed by Bayer was shown to have curative powers in the treatment of tuberculosis. Copper treatment for tuberculosis continued until the 1940s, and various physicians reported on their success in using copper preparations in intravenous injections.

In 1939, the German physician, Werner Hangarter, noticed that Finnish copper miners were unaffected by arthritis as long as they worked in the mining industry. This was particularly striking since rheumatism was a widespread disease in Finland, and workers in other industries and other towns had more rheumatic diseases than did the copper miners. This observation led Finnish medical researchers plus the Germans, Hangarter and Lübke, to begin their now classic clinical trials using an aqueous mixture of copper chloride and sodium salicylate. They successfully treated patients suffering from rheumatic fever, rheumatoid arthritis, neck and back problems, as well as sciatica.

Until recently, just as in Plinys time, the medical profession used copper sulphate as a means to clinically induce vomiting. This is based on the fact that one of the body's natural physiological responses to prevent copper intoxication is vomiting. A Manual of Pharmacology and its Applications to Therapeutics and Toxicology, published by W. B. Saunders Company in 1957 recommends the use of 0.5 gram of copper sulphate, dissolved in a glass of water, in a single dose, or three doses of 0.25 gram fifteen minutes apart, for this purpose.

Since 1934, it has been known that individuals suffering from such diseases as scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, arthritis, malignant tumours and lymphogranulomas exhibit an elevation of copper in their blood plasma. Since then, the list of maladies bringing about such elevation has been extended to fever, wounds, ulcers, pain, seizures, cancers, carcinogenesis, diabetes, cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases, and irradiation and tissue stresses, including restricted blood flow. This suggests that this redistribution of copper in the body has a general role in responding to physiological, disease, or injury stress. On the other hand, the elevation of copper in the affected organ has led some to postulate that it was this excess of copper that caused the disease. Nonetheless, this elevation of copper in diseased states is suggested to account for the natural synthesis of copper dependent regulatory proteins and enzymes in the body required for biochemical responses to stress. It may be that these natural copper complexes expedite the relief of stress and the repair of tissues. Thus, it appears that in addition to the anti bacterial and anti fungal activity of inorganic copper compounds as recognized by the ancients, metallo organic complexes of copper have medicinal capabilities that are fundamental to the healing process itself.

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