The Devouring Element

From antiquity to the present, lead has taken on many roles—from artificial sweetener, to paint ingredient, to modern health scourge. 

By Jennifer Dionisio | June 4, 2009

The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health
Mütter Museum
19 S. 22nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

In the haunting Francisco Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son, a crouching, wild-eyed Saturn consumes a bloody, half-eaten child’s body, representing the Greek myth about the god who swallowed his children at birth after hearing a prophecy that one would steal his throne.

The Devouring Element

Color booklet for paint

For a long time, lead was added to paint for its moisture-resistant and quick drying properties. Lead paint has been banned since 1978 for residential use.

Mütter Museum, College of Physicians of Philadelphia

A replica of this painting hangs on the back wall of the Mütter Museum’s temporary exhibit space, setting a dark tone for its newest occupant, The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health. Historically lead has been associated with Saturn, the god of melancholy. As exhibit text explains, both the substance and the figure were considered to be corrupted, though each held the potential for purification. “We’ve had a love/hate relationship with lead since antiquity,” says museum director Dr. Robert Hicks. “Its health risks have always been known, but its benefits often superseded its risks.”

The images and ephemera on display testify to the pervasiveness of lead-based products over the course of human history. While it’s common knowledge that lead was once widely used in paints, pipes, and gasoline, many of its older applications are surprising. In the section on lead in food and drink, for example, one learns that lead acetate is sweet to the taste and was used as an artificial sweetener for Roman royalty. Historians suspect this lead to widespread sterility among the empire’s leaders.

The consequences of lead poisoning vary and usually result from long-term exposure. The substance settles in bones and teeth before leeching out. It commonly attacks the nervous system, but also weakens joints, paralyzes muscles, decreases fertility, causes gout and colic, and can lead to death. It’s particularly dangerous for children, in whom it stunts cognitive development. Chronically exposed children unknowingly find themselves in Saturn’s merciless grip, and there is no going back once the damage has been done.

Though lead exposure rates in American children have significantly decreased over the last 20 years, they have not entirely disappeared for any portion of the general population. As such, The Devouring Element pairs objects from the Mütter Museum’s collection of old medical specimens, tools, texts, and photographs with present-day items provided by the director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which along with collaborated on the exhibit. One of those pieces is a bowl in which sits a pile of mass-produced Mexican candies contaminated with lead. They were purchased last year. Hicks notes that after touring the exhibit, one museum patron realized she had those very candies at home. Other items included were purchased online. “$100 on eBay can buy you a lot of lead,” he jokes.

Curated in less than a month, The Devouring Element revels in juxtaposing antique and contemporary uses of lead. In a section on cosmetics, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth hangs on the wall. Lead was the primary ingredient in the white paint Elizabeth regularly applied to her face, and her ravaged appearance in her last years reflected the damage of lead poisoning. The idea that lead might be used as an ingredient in any modern cosmetic is shocking, yet underneath the portrait hangs a display box containing a Cleopatra-era Egyptian eyeliner pot as well as two tubes of recalled lipstick from a brand readily found on any drugstore shelf.

That isn’t to say this exhibit is solely a house of lead-related horrors. The collection makes obvious that lead has been integral to the advancement of our way of life as a cheap, readily accessible material. However, The Devouring Element’s primary message seems to be a warning—explicitly about the risks of lead exposure, but also more generally that there are hidden dangers lurking in many of the substances we regularly come in contact with. And while we debate whether the hazards of these exposures are of real significance, our bodies might very slowly be being similarly devoured.