Copper and human health in the Chalcolithic, the classical, and the age of COVID


Julie Laskaris (University of Richmond)

Julie Laskaris received her doctorate in Classics from the University of California, Los Angeles, 1999 (BA cum laude, Classics, New York University, 1982). Before that, she was a modern dancer in New York. She is chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Richmond, where she’s an associate professor. Her research interests center on Greek medicine, and particularly on its therapies. She has served as president and treasurer of the Society for Ancient Medicine and Pharmacy, and is a past president of the Virginia State Conference of the American Association of University Professors. She is a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union and of the NAACP.

Copper and human health in the Chalcolithic, the classical, and the age of COVID

The fast-acting and powerful biocidal properties of copper and its compounds have made it an important element in pharmacological texts from antiquity forward. Pliny attests to the fact that the wounds of copper miners healed faster than those of other people, which implies that simply handling copper may have led to discovery of its therapeutic properties. If that is the case, it could have been used medicinally even before the Chalcolithic, since attractive blue and green copper compounds were used ornamentally long before knowledge of smelting copper ore. While the use of metallic medicines had been diminished steadily in the past century owing to the development of safer antibiotics, copper has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the past few years, as it has been effective against some antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including MRSA. Very recent research has shown that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which can remain alive for several days on the surfaces of stainless steel, survives for only two-four hours on copper. This paper will explore the possibility that copper was used medicinally in prehistory, and then trace its use in, primarily, Greek and Roman medicine, and end with a short summary of the resurgence of the biocidal uses of copper in this century.

Respondent: Colin Webster (UC Davis)

3 May 2021, 17:00 p.m. (UK time)

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