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Benjamin Franklin's Lead Letter

The following is a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Vaughan on July 31, 1786. The letter relates Franklin's recollection of lead's dangers in his boyhood Boston, where rum distilleries were prohibited from using leaden still-heads because they contaminated the rum with lead, causing people to lose the use of their hands. (reference)

"I recollect that, when I had the great pleasure of seeing you at Southampton, now a 12 months since, we had some conversation on the bad effects of lead taken inwardly; and that at your request I promised to send you in writing a particular account of several facts I there mentioned to you, of which you thought some good use might be made. I now sit down to fulfill that promise."

Franklin Talks about Lead in a Print Shop

As the letter continues, Franklin recalls the time when he was working in a print shop in London and received advice from an old workman who may have saved Franklin's ability to write with a steady hand. The workman discouraged young Benjamin from warming the cases of leaden types before the fire. Although it made the cold metal easier to handle, others who followed the practice had met with disaster. Their hands would shake and they became so ill they could not work. Franklin writes:

"One of whom that used to earn his guinea a week, could not then make more than ten shillings, and the other, who had the dangles, but seven and sixpence. This, with a kind of obscure pain, that I had sometimes felt, as it were in the bones of my hand when working over the types made very hot, induced me to omit the practice."

Franklin Reveals Mysterious Lead Case in Europe

But I have been told of a case in Europe, I forget the place, where a whole family was afflicted with what we call dry bellyache, or colica pictonum, by drinking rain water. It was at a country-seat, which being situated too high to have the advantage of a well, was supplied with water from a tank, which received the water from the leaded roofs.

This had been drunk several years without mischief; but some young trees planted near the house growing up above the roof, and shedding the leaves upon it, it was supposed that an acid in those leaves had corroded the lead they covered and furnished the water of that with its baneful particles and qualities.

This, my dear friend, is all I can at present recollect on the subject. You will see by it, that the opinion of this mischievous effort from lead is at least above sixty years old; and you will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on.

I am, ever, yours most affectionately,

B. Franklin

See also: Lead additives, Lead as toxic element, Beethoven, Home lead poisoning, Lead in history, Lead letter, Occupational disease, Toxic effects, Toxicology