While certain ancient remedies have received quite a bad rap in the modern era, it appears that some beliefs related to the healing properties of copper may have been spot on.
Copper’s use in medicine was initially recorded within the ancient Egyptian Smith Papyrus , written around 3000 BC, within which copper was described as having disinfectant powers. Within the Ebers Papyrus , from about 1500 BC, copper in multiple formats was recommended for a range of ailments from burn wounds to headaches.
But the use of copper for healing was not unique to Egypt. Drinking water from copper vessels was believed to prevent infections and purify water—thus avoiding diarrhea—in a range of cultures, including the ancient Greeks, Chinese and within Ayurvedic practices of India. The Phoenicians even used shavings from their bronze swords—rich in copper—to prevent infection in battle wounds.
Greek physician Dioscorides recorded using a green pigment created by exposing metallic copper to vinegar vapor in eye treatments, the Hippocratic Collection recommended copper to treat leg ulcers and Pliny described its use in treatments for intestinal worms, mouth ulcers and ear problems. The Aztecs reportedly prescribed gargling with a copper mixture to heal sore throats, while Mongolian tribes treated venereal ulcers with copper sulfate.
Greek copper kylix drinking cup from the 3rd to 2nd century BC. The Greeks believed that using bronze or copper drinking cups had health benefits, imparting medicinal properties. Copper was also revered for its associations to Aphrodite, and thought to enhance beauty and passion. ( Public domain )
The popularity of copper as a cure-all remedy dwindled over the centuries, due to advances in evidence-based medicine. As scientific knowledge grew, other supposedly more effective treatments were adopted and copper’s potential toxicity emerged, with the according symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, headaches and even liver, kidney or neurological issues.
More recently Smithsonian Magazine reported on a study of the antimicrobial effects of copper by Bill Keevil at the University of Southampton. After decades testing how different viruses react on contact with copper, he has proved that copper has a long-lasting anti-microbial effect, killing different pathogens within minutes. He has even recommended the use of copper on surfaces within hospitals, such as tray tables, bed railings and intravenous poles, since copper has been proven to keep these surfaces clean of microorganisms.
Copper has a particular atomic makeup which gives it this antimicrobial power, making it—in the words of Keevil—a “molecular oxygen grenade.” The science behind this work is exciting. “When a microbe lands on copper, ions blast the pathogen like an onslaught of missiles, preventing cell respiration and punching holes in the cell membrane or viral coating and creating free radicals that accelerate the kill.”
It appears that, before knowledge about the existence of viruses, germs or bacteria, the intuitive beliefs of the ancients understood that that copper had disinfectant properties which could be used for healing. This is knowledge that could and should be put to good use in public spaces and within modern medicine today.
Top image: Science is finally catching up with beliefs that ancient peoples have known all along. AI generated image of a copper molecule structure. Source: DmitriRich / Adobe Stock