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Silver- In Medicine


    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 silver.

    ‘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.”1

    1 C A Moyer. Some effects of 0.5 per cent silver nitrate and high humidity upon the illness associated with large burns. J. Natl. Med. Assoc. 1965, 57(2), 95.


    The Silver Institute