How the Devonshire Colic shaped the future of Lead Poisoning
Rick Elliott, HONR 204
Ciders Place in the History of Devonshire
Devon County, a mostly rural area in Southwest England, served as home to one of
the most intriguing public health cases in history. The area, unofficially referred to
as Devonshire, at one point was very involved in the production of cider. Known as
Devons traditional drink, the making of cider was well documented in Devons
history dating back to the 13th century. According to one account, dated 1285 A.D.,
the region produced so much cider, it served as a regular source of revenue for the
county. As England came out of the Middle Ages, orchards expanded and apple
production increased, resulting in even greater cider production. Used commonly on
naval expeditions, Devons cider was extremely
effective at fighting scurvy, one of the most
daunting diseases facing sailors embarking on a
long naval voyage. More easily made than beer
and cheaper to produce than wine, cider was even
believed to help improve overall health in the
county of Devon. All former ideas concerning
Devons cider, however, were drastically
changed when the drink was linked to a colic
epidemic, which broke out in the county in the
early 18th century. The events that followed
resulted in one of the earliest and most severe
backlashes against lead and its poisonous grip on
Perhaps the best description of the colic epidemic in Devon comes from John
Huxham, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who wrote his tract on the disease,
Opusculum de morbo colico Damnoniorum, in 1738. Huxhams tract on the
disease focused on its outbreak in 1724, which was especially widespread and
deadly. The primary symptom was terrible stomach pain, the trademark symptom of
colic. This, along with a weak pulse and cold sweats, was the first symptom often
experienced. Next, the tongue would be covered with a thick layer of mucus and the
diseased person would begin extended, violent vomiting. The vomit was heavily
laden with phlegm and mucus. Its consistency was thick and acidic, and sometimes
even bloody, as a result of the esophagus and throat being damaged by the terrible
vomiting. The disease culminated with severe muscular aches and bone pains. In
some cases, paralysis set in, and in even rarer cases, death.
Luckily for doctors and scientists of the time, the Devonshire Colic showed certain
discernible patterns. For example, it seemed to strike every autumn. Also, it seemed
to affect certain families more than others. While these two qualities could provide
insight into cause and communicability of the disease, one mysterious facet of the
Devonshire Colic was that it seemed to affect the lower class more than the rich.
Intrigued by these things, many doctors sought out to determine the cause of this
John Huxham and the Cider Hypothesis
The first correlation between the Devonshire Colic and cider drinking was made
by the English doctor, William Musgrave, who in 1707 wrote that the colic "only
infests those that make use of that liquor, and in the same proportion as they make
use of it; so that in those times when cider abounds it increases and becomes very
common on the other hand when Pomona withholds her bounty it is observed
more rarely. John Huxham expanded upon this original argument in his tract on
the Devonshire Colic in 1738. In 1724, when the epidemic was especially
widespread across the county, Huxham noted that Devons apple production had
far exceeded any prior years crop. This year, Devonians, he claimed, consumed
more apples and cider than in years past, and the increased acidity intake caused
such a bad outbreak of colic. He related the epidemic to the colic of Poitou, which
was virtually the same disease and had broken out in the early 1600s. A heavy
wine producing and drinking area, Huxham claimed Poitous epidemic was
likewise a result of the high acidity in grapes and their juices. Supported by
Musgrave and Huxham, two very well-respected physicians, this theory would
stand until George Bakers work on the Devonshire Colic was published in 1767.
TEMPLATE DESIGN 2007
George Baker and the Lead Hypothesis
Being a native of Devonshire, George Baker had
obvious reasons to investigate this terrible influx
of Colic that struck Devon each year. Born in
1722, Baker was educated at Eton and Kings
College, Cambridge, receiving his M.D. in 1756.
A Fellow of the Royal Society, one of Englands
most prestigious honors for a man of science,
Baker was also elected a Fellow of the College
of Physicians. In 1761, he moved to London to
become physician to the Queens household. He
first presented his paper on the Devonshire Colic
to the College of Physicians in 1767. Baker claimed that the Devonshire Colic was
not in fact some disease caused by the intake of highly acidic fruits, but was
actually caused by lead poisoning. He noted that the worst outbreaks of colic were
located in close proximity to Devon Countys centers of cider production. He
disproved Huxhams theory, since there was no possible way the acidity of fruit
could be linked to lead. He argued does the experience of jockeys, who
in order to reduce themselves to a certain standard of weight by sweating, are said
to drink largely of vinegar, strengthen such an observation? Do we find it true that
children and valetudinary people, and particularly chlorotic girls, whose primae
viae abound with acid, are on that account subject to this colic?
Since he believed the colic was caused by lead, but there was no way the cider,
itself, actually contained lead, the next question Baker had to answer was how is
the cider contaminated? He began to consider the cider-making process in Devon.
Through his research, he discovered something described by Caspar Newman in
his 1749 work, The Chemical Works. The large circular trough, in which the
apples are ground, is generally composed of several pieces of moor-stones,
cramped together with iron, some melted lead being poured into the interstices.
Equipped with this information on the cider-making process, Baker sought out to
test his new hypothesis.
Bakers Experiment: Devastating
In order to prove his hypothesis,Simplicity
Baker procured a
sample of cider made by using a lead-lined press.
He needed to prove that the use of lead in the
cider-making process actually resulted in the cider
containing a dangerous level of lead.
Baker soaked several sheets of clean paper with
his sample of cider from a lead-lined press. He
soaked other sheets with various other liquids,
including juice made not from a lead-lined press
and wine. Next, Baker exposed these sheets, each
soaked with a different liquid, to the fumes of a
volatile tincture of sulphur. Knowing that a
substantial amount of lead coming into contact
with these fumes would result in the sheet turning
a very dark color, when this actually happened in
his experiment, he knew his hypothesis had been
proven and that the Devonshire Colic was actually
caused by lead poisoning.
Opposition to Bakers Theory
George Bakers experiments were met with criticism from many different areas.
The same year Baker delivered his Devonshire Colic paper to the College of
Physicians, a pamphlet was anonymously written and published claiming that only
one cider pound in Devon actually contained lead, far less than Baker had claimed.
Another argument against Bakers work was made by fellow English physician,
Francis Geach, whose pamphlet, Some observations on Dr. Bakers essay on the
endemial colic of Devonshire, supported John Huxhams previous claim that the
colic was a result of highly acidic fruits.
Bakers experiments proved that if the cider were exposed to lead, it could become
contaminated enough to cause the colic epidemic. However in light of the
opposition, one question remained: where did the lead come from?
A New Theory Emerges: James Hardy
When James Hardy wrote on the
Devonshire Colic in 1778, he was in
support of George Bakers original
claim that the epidemic was caused by
lead poisoning. His goal, however,
was to prove that the lead came not
from lead-lined presses used in cidermaking, but lead glazed earthenware
jugs and pitchers, used to store the
drink. Experiments made by Thomas
Percival, another English scientist,
inclined Hardy to believe that there was in fact lead used in the glazes of English
earthenware. In order to test this new hypothesis, Hardy conducted experiments of
his own. He filled 25 glazed earthenware vessels with cider and various other
liquids. Some he boiled in the earthenware, and other he let stand for a duration of
time. To test each individual liquids uptake of lead, Hardy used a test solution of
orpiment and quick-lime in water. If lead were present in the liquid when the test
solution was added, the lead would precipitate out of the solution in the form of
lead sulphide. Sure enough, these tests concluded that Devons cider did become
heavily contaminated with lead when stored in glazed earthenware containers.
Glazed Earthenware and Lead
The fact that glazed earthenware products
were commonly used by residents of
Devonshire, only helps prove Hardys
theory more. It also helps solve some of
the more unique aspects of the epidemic.
Why were the rich less affected than the
poor? Because they stored their cider in
glass and stone vessels instead of
earthenware. Why were only some families
Because their particular earthenware jugs may have been made using more lead
than their neighbors. Further tests concluded that as much as 1 oz. of lead ore
was used in each quart of glaze. Waves of potters and glazemakers from
continental Europe began moving to England from 1650-1689. The influx of
German and Dutch glaze technology advanced further in England, resulting in the
very popular style of glazed earthenware called Queensware. By bringing glaze
technologies into England, however, these artisans also brought lead, as seen
tragically with the epidemic of the Devonshire Colic.
The Devonshire Colic epidemic has great significance for many reasons. On a
scientific level, it spurred its time periods greatest minds to search for a cure. The
work of men like John Huxham, George Baker, and James Hardy is significant
because it represents one of the first times in epidemiology when the scientific
method and an organized set of experiments were used to solve a case. Purely on a
public health level, their work helped identify a major threat to humanity, leads
presence in glazed earthenware, and then extinguish it. Lead use has continued for
decades past the Devonshire Colic, however this singular event still represents one
of the many important steps taken against lead and the dangers it presents to
McConaghey, R.M.S., Sir George Baker and the Devonshire Colic
Medical History, 1967 October
McConaghey, R.M.S., Epidemiology in Devon
British Medical Journal, 1957 November 30
Meiklejohn, Andrew, The Mill Reek and the Devonshire Colic
British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1954 January
Rosen, George, The Endemial Colic of Devonshire: An Essay Concerning its Cause
American Journal of Public Health, 1959 January
Waldron, H.A., James Hardy and the Devonshire Colic
Medical History, 1969 January
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