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"Arsenic as a preservative of dead bodies"

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(10 November 1838): 264

PDFs originally courtesy of Elsevier, via Health Sciences Center Library, Emory University. Included are the editorial from Lancet 2 (3 November 1838): 246-48, and Snow's letter -- the earliest published writing of his found to date. Only Snow's letter is transcribed below.

To the Editor of the Lancet

Sir:--As the last Number of your Journal contains an article on preserving bodies for dissection, by injecting them with a solution of arsenious acid, you will oblige me by giving publicity to my reasons for believing such a practice to be highly dangerous, as calculated to expose the dissector to breathe an atmosphere contaminated with arsenuretted hydrogen, which is, perhaps the most deadly combination of arsenic. Nearly two years ago I first prepared, at the school in Great Windmill-street, a saturated solution of arsenite of potash, for the injection of a subject, at the suggestion of Dr. Hunter Lane, the lecturer on chemistry there, who had read an account of its effects in a foreign journal. The injection succeeded, producing precisely the effects and appearances described in your quotation; by passing into the veins and diffusing itself everywhere from the permeability of dead tissues, the solution, in a short time, left the arteries empty, so as to admit the usual red injection. Two or three more bodies were subsequently injected, and during the dissection of one of them, one of the pupils suffered severely from pain in the stomach and bowels, vomiting, and purging.

In the summer of 1837, I injected another body, and dissected it, with five of my fellow students, during the very hot weather of, I think, August. Decomposition was retarded considerably, but there was only one of us who did not suffer more or less indisposition, principally bowel complaints: and the subject gave out a peculiar odour, which I suspected arose from the arsenic rising in combination with the volatile products of decomposition. I took some portions of the body, at the end of five or six weeks, and subjected them to a careful examination, and though they had been drenched with the solution, in the first instance, I found no arsenic remaining.

As an experimentum crucis, I some time afterwards placed some animal substances, in a state of decomposition, on a dish, along with solution of arsenite of potash, and also powdered arsenious acid, and placed over them a bell-glass receiver to collect the gases given off, and, at the end of two or three weeks, I added the air contained in the glass to a sufficient quantity of pure hydrogen to make an inflammable mixture, and burnt this as it proceeded from a small jet, holding a piece of glass in the flame, and I procured a small quantity of metallic arsenic. I expressed my conviction that this mode of injection was dangerous, and it was discontinued at the school. I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,

John Snow, M.R.C.S

58, Frith-street, Soho, Nov. 5th, 1838.

Professor Goodeve expressly mentions, in the article, an abstract of which we have given, that no ill effects were experienced by any of the persons engaged in the dissection of bodies injected with a solution of white arsenic.--Ed. L.

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