Silver has been used as a natural antibiotic for millennia. One of the earliest recordings of silver being used to keep water fresh comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. He wrote that the Persian King Cyrus would only drink water that came from a certain river that ran along the Persian capital. So, no matter where the king traveled, he took with him a caravan of wagon full of silver jars of the river’s water. Though he might travel for years at a time, the water still stayed fresh.
During the 14th century, the black plague killed a quarter of Europe’s population. While little was done to effectively fight the plague, since no one knew the cause at the time, very few wealthy Europeans succumbed to the plague. Some suspect this is because only the wealthy could afford to eat with silverware and give their children silver pacifiers. This may have given them protection against the bacterium that caused the black plague.
American pioneers dropped silver dollars in milk to keep it fresh. While traveling, many also placed silver in their water containers to prevent them from being infected with algae or bacteria.
In the late 19th century the German obstetrician Carl Sigmund Franz Credé made a radical breakthrough in preventing blindness through the use of silver. Where Credé worked, about twelve percent of infants born suffered from the eye disease ophthalmia neonatorum. Of those who were born from the disease, three percent were permanently blinded and about one in five suffered from some sort sight damage. Many cures had been attempted before, including applying thymol, potassium permanganate, carbolic acid, and simply washing the infant’s eyes. Credé discovered that applying a solution of silver nitrate to every infant’s eyes, the number of infants who acquired the disease dropped dramatically. The treatment soon became standard practice, and became known as the “Credé silver method.” Doctors soon began experimenting with ways to apply silver for medical purposes more effectively, and some of these experiments were published in medical journals, including the article “A Contribution to the Crede Silver Method of Wound Treatment” published in the “New England Medical Monthly” In 1899. The Credé silver method was used in the United States until the 1930’s, and continues to be used today in many other countries.
In the early part of the 20th century, Dr. Malcolm Morris worked with silver for the treatment of several diseases and reported that it was effective in treating a variety of infections. He reported in the British Medical Journal in 1917 that silver “…has a distinctly soothing effect. It rapidly subdues inflammation and promotes healing of the lesions, it can be used with remarkable results in enlarged prostate with irritation of the bladder, in pruritis ani and perineal eczema, and in hemorrhoids.”
There were quite literally dozens of silver-based products on the market until the 1930’s. Silver began to fall out of favor in this time because of the development of synthetically manufactured drugs and antibiotics. Despite this, many pharmaceutical companies continued to produce silver based products until the 1970’s.
During World War II, many soldiers died from bacterial infection. The surgeon Dr. Charles Fox tried to find a way to effectively combat this problem, and developed silver sulfadiazine, which could be applied directly to a wound to prevent infection. The discovery proved to be very effective, and it continues to be used in hospitals today.
In the 1970’s the chairman of Washington University’s Departments of Surgery, Dr. Carl Moyer, acquired a grant to develop treatments for burn victims. One of their goals was to find an antiseptic that was powerful enough to clean large wounds, but safe enough to use in large quantities. While working with Dr. Margraf, the chief biochemist on the study, twenty-two antiseptic compounds were examined, but they were all either too toxic or not powerful enough. Dr. Margraf noticed repeated references to silver as a germ fighter in past medical literature, and decided to examine its effectiveness for himself. He used the same kind of silver used in the Credé Silver Method, a solution of diluted silver nitrate. He discovered that it killed the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium, which causes the largest number of complications and fatalities in burn cases, and allowed the wound to heal faster. Silver nitrate, however, wasn’t preferred because, according to Dr. Margraf “It severely disturbs the balance of body salts, and its use must be halted from time to time. It must be applied in thick, cumbersome dressings, and stains everything it touches.” So he proceeded to test over fifty other silver compounds, and his research contributed significantly to the treatment of burns and skin ulcers.
In 1978, the popular science magazine Science Digest did a report of silver entitled “Our Mightiest Germ Fighter.” The article stated, “An antibiotic kills perhaps a half-dozen different disease organisms, but silver kills some 650. Resistant strains fail to develop. Moreover, silver is virtually non-toxic.”
In the 1990’s the Chinese government began researching silver to develop a powerful antiseptic. Their research helped develop a silver-based compound that could sterilize surfaces for extended periods of time without posing any toxic threat to humans.
Many companies use silver for it antibacterial properties. Samsung released a line of washing machines in the early 21st century with what it calls “SilverCare technology,” which injects silver into the wash cycle to disinfect clothing. Many airlines use silver to purify water during a flight. Some use silver as alternative to chlorine to disinfect pools.
Today, the FDA approves a few uses of silver for medical use. Silver sulfadiazine, which is sold under the name Silvadene, is used in burn wards to protect burns from bacterial infections. Silver infused bandages can also be used to help accelerate the healing of wounds. Many hospitals have installed silver-based water purifying systems to combat Legionnaire’s disease.
Silver colloids can also be purchased online and in health food stores. Modern colloidal silver solutions can be manufactured with a much greater degree of exactitude than those produced in the early 20th century, which may lead to greater effectiveness of silver’s believed benefits.