John Parascandola, BS, MS, PhD
University of Maryland, College Park, United States
|Styrian peasant women
(from The Illustrated London News, July 19, 1873)
In 1851, the medical world learned of the curious practice of arsenic eating among peasants in Styria (now a region of Austria) through an article in a Viennese medical journal by Swiss physician, naturalist, and traveler Johann Jakob von Tschudi. The stimulus for this paper was a trial involving a poisoning case where the question was raised as to whether or not a certain individual was a “toxicophagus.” Tschudi stated that since the “toxicophagi” were largely unknown to the medical public, he decided to publish some information on the subject.
Tschudi explained that the toxicophagi were peasants in Styria and Lower Austria who were in the habit of eating arsenic. Their purpose was either to acquire a fresh complexion and appearance of flourishing health or to facilitate respiration when walking or working in the mountainous terrain of the area. Toxicophagi began by taking a small piece of the arsenic, about the size of a lentil (less than half a grain), several times a week. They gradually increased the dose as the smaller quantity lost its effect. Tschudi cited the case of a man who had worked his way up to a dose of four grains (enough to kill most people). He also reported that the toxicophagi became dependent on the arsenic, and suffered ill consequences, such as anxiety and indigestion, if they stopped using it. His original German article was translated into English and French in several medical journals and brought to the attention of a broader audience through discussion in popular works.
Many medical writers, especially in Britain, were skeptical of Tschudi’s claims about the toxicophagi. Physician W. B. Kesteven, for example, published an article in 1856 in a British medical journal in which he attacked Tschudi’s paper and the accounts based on it. He argued that much of the evidence for arsenic eating was based on hearsay, rather than on any systematic observation . He criticized the authors of these accounts as not having medical training or sufficient clinical experience (such as Tschudi, whom he characterized as more of a traveler than a doctor). Kesteven also noted that the substance ingested by the peasants had never been chemically analyzed to confirm that it was arsenic.
The debate over the arsenic eaters continued, and several individuals attempted to provide further evidence of the practice. English chemist Henry Roscoe reported in an 1862 paper that he had communicated with physicians in Styria who confirmed that it was generally believed in that area that there were persons who consumed arsenic regularly in substantial quantities without apparent harm. They sent him information on cases of arsenic eating which they had personally observed or which had been related to them by “trustworthy persons.” One physician described a case of a man who consumed a total of 10 grains (at least twice the normal lethal dose) over two days and still appeared to be in good health. In addition, Roscoe obtained a sample of a substance consumed by an arsenic eater and determined by chemical analysis that it was white arsenic.
Although there were some who remained skeptical, the medical and scientific literature of the period suggests that many physicians and chemists came to accept the validity of the accounts of the Styrian arsenic eaters. For example, in the 1905 edition of his textbook of chemistry, Henry Roscoe repeated his belief that arsenic eating was a fact, arguing that there were well-authenticated cases of the practice.
The publicity given to arsenic eating helped to popularize the use of arsenic in medicines and cosmetics. Arsenic had long been used in medicine, but the story of the Styrian arsenic eaters gave physicians a new rationale for its medicinal use in preparations such as Fowler’s Solution. Arsenic had not been used much for cosmetic purposes earlier, but became a popular beauty treatment after the discovery of the arsenic eaters. Reports of the “clear and blooming complexions” and full rounded figures of the young Styrian peasant women led to widespread use of cosmetic products such as Dr. Campbell’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers, which promised a clear complexion.
The tide turned against the concept of arsenic tolerance in the first few decades of the 20th century, when more scientific efforts to examine this folk practice were undertaken. Animal experiments cast doubt on the idea that an organism can develop a tolerance to arsenic, and investigators suggested that the Styrians had survived the poison by consuming arsenic compounds in a relatively coarse form that was only poorly absorbed. Recent studies have provided stronger evidence for the development of tolerance to arsenic in certain plants and animals, and even in human cells, although the mechanism is not well understood. Definitive proof is still lacking as to whether or not the Styrian arsenic eaters truly developed an immunity to the poison.
- Parascandola, John. 2012. King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books.
- Whorton, James. 2010. The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play. New York: Oxford University Press.
JOHN PARASCANDOLA, BS, MS, PhD, received his PhD (1968) in history of science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught for fourteen years. He then served as Chief of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine and as Public Health Service Historian. He currently teaches at the University of Maryland College Park and works as an historical consultant. He is the author of four books, two of which won awards. He served as President of the American Association for the History of Medicine and received the Surgeon General’s Medallion, the highest honor awarded by the Surgeon General.