Silver in medicine – past, present and future
Silver has been associated with human medicine and healthcare for over two millennia. The ‘father of
modern medicine,’ Hippocrates, wrote of using silver to improve wound care around 400 BC, and
during the intervening years silver has featured in a wide range of writings, most of which highlight its
capabilities particularly with regards to limiting inflammation and infection. The interest in silver in
medicine was probably spurred by long‐held knowledge that silver kept many perishable items fresher
for longer periods of time – for example, silver coins were often dropped into barrels of water and
milk on long journeys to slow their degradation. While it was not understood at the time, under these
conditions silver ions are formed which interrupt many microbial processes associated with spoilage.
It is this relatively simple piece of science which ultimately drove the medical community’s interest in
‘Modern day’ medical uses of silver began at the turn of the 19th century when surgeons used silver
sutures to help minimize post‐operative inflammation. Later in the 1800s, silver nitrate eyedrops were
introduced as an antiseptic (to reduce neonatal conjunctivitis). The following century saw World War
I soldiers take silver leaf into battle to help fight infection if they were injured in the trenches, and
silver was increasingly used to treat common ailments such as sore throats and tonsillitis. This increase
in usage was accompanied by the identification of argyria, a rare condition associated with the gradual
accumulation of silver compounds in the body and characterized by discoloration of the skin in the
most extreme cases.
Alexander Fleming’s discovery of antibiotics in the late 1920s saw a reduction of interest in silver’s use
in medicine for a short period, but this was reignited in the 1960s by the work of Professor Carl Moyer,
who was Chairman of the Department of Surgery, Washington University, Missouri. Moyer recognized
the potential of silver salts to be used in the treatment of severe burns injuries. In a paper presented
at the 69th annual convention of the U.S. National Medical Association in 1964, Moyer described: “A
personal experience during 25 years with applying dressings continuously wet with 0.5% silver nitrate
to chronically infected open wounds and to thin split‐grafts on surfaces that rejected them repeatedly,
had demonstrated that silver nitrate in this concentration cleared the ulcers of organisms such as
pseudomonas, staphylococci, streptococci and proteus quickly, and that small stamp‐type skin grafts
would take and proliferate rapidly when covered continuously with 0.5% silver nitrate.”
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