The Blue Man Mystery

In an earlier post, I wrote about the possible copper poisoning of the great British poet and artist William Blake. The very simple lesson inherent in that story is that a strong dose of metals on a regular basis is generally bad for a person's health.

But one could argue that this is too simple a lesson. That not all metals are equally dangerous. In support of that caveat, in today's post, I'm featuring a short excerpt from my book, The Poisoner's Handbook, which concerns  a human circus exhibit and a steady diet of silver nitrate:

In the chilly January of 1924,  scientists at the New York City Medical Examiner's office got a chance at a true oddball case, the death of the Famous Blue Man. The man had spent most of his life as one of the human curiosities exhibited at Barnum and Baileyâs, the Greatest Circus on Earth, as it traveled around the country.  The Blue Man had recently died at Bellevue; the pathologists said his body was one of the strangest theyâd seen stretched on a marble table in the morgue.

The famed human oddity was 68 years old when he checked himself into the hospital, short of breath and complaining that when he lay flat, he couldnât breathe at all. As his hospital records noted, he was a tall, thin man, with glistening white hair and an equally glossy white mustache. His skin was so deep a blue to appear black at a distance.  His lips were blue; his tongue was blue. The scleras â what would usually be called the whites of the eyes â were also blue.

This wasnât the exhausted bluish patchiness of cyanide poisoning though. The skin was smoothly colored, with an almost lustrous look. It was that over all effect of polishing that led the doctors to a diagnosis â the Blue Man was suffering from a disease called argyria (from the Greek word argyros meaning silver). The condition was known to deposit silver through the body, staining the tissues to a deeply polished blue-gray.

The Bellevue doctors suspected that the Blue Man, a former British army officer, had achieved his later fame by dosing himself with silver nitrate. This was a salt made by dissolving silver into nitric acid and evaporating the solution, leaving behind a glossy powder, which could be mixed for other uses. Silver nitrate was easily available; used in photographic processing, by dentists to treat ulcers in the mouth, blended into drops that went into the eyes of newborn babies to prevent infections.

Their patient firmly denied any silver exposure, denied any self-medication at all. As heâd told his circus admirers, he was a freak of nature, he insisted, blue at birth. But when he died that fall â from rapidly worsening pneumonia â they decided to take a thorough look at his story. The resulting autopsy showed that he was blue-silver on the inside too, the membranes smooth and glistening, the muscle tissue a dull-reddish brown with a faint silver tint, the spleen colored a bluish red, the liver bluish gray. Even the brain shone silver, its familiar curves and coils slightly reflective in the pale light of the morgue.

Still, how much metal did his body contain?  To find out,  city toxicologist Alexander Gettler made an acid solution of the organs and cooked it dry, creating a gray ash. He flushed hot water, ammonia and nitric acid through the ashes, washing the silver out of them. He then measured the silver from each organ, totaling up the results to calculate the whole body content.  Gettlerâs conservative estimate was that the Blue Manâs body contained a good three and half ounces of solid silver. About half the metal was in the muscle tissue, another fourth in the bones, and the rest mostly concentrated in the liver, kidneys, heart and brain.

But the silver hadnât killed the Blue Man. He had died of the pneumonia; the only effect that silver doses seemed to have had was to turn him that remarkable deep indigo color. âAmong the heavy metals which may become deposited in the human body in relatively large amounts,â Gettler wrote, in his report on the case, âsilver is of slight and perhaps least toxicity.â

Of course, the toxicology lab was now in possession of a nice quantity of pure silver. His co-workers took the gleaming pellets acquired from the Blue Manâs body, melted them down and shaped them into a bullet. Just in case, his friends assured Gettler, he ever had to analyze a vampire.

He put it on his desk. Just in case, he replied.

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Loving your blog. Sneakily getting smarter without feeling like I'm working at it.

So glad you posted this. The Blue Man story started quite a discussion with my general chemistry students.

Chemical pedantry: silver nitrate is not used in photographic *processing* (by which, I presume you mean film development). It is actually used in the manufacture of the film itself. Silver nitrate is soluble in water, where it is reacted with sodium chloride (table salt) to form insoluble silver chloride (or with similar salts to produce what is generically known as silver halide). Tiny crystals of silver halide are coated with several other chemicals in thin layers onto plastic sheets to make film. The silver halide absorbs light, and reacts in the developing bath to form colored compounds that correspond to the image.

In fact, the Blue Man's color is caused by tiny particles of silver metal ("colloidal silver") in his tissues. These same particles, formed in the developing bath, make up the black in black & white film.

Spilling small amounts of silver nitrate on your skin causes brown stains that cannot be washed off and fade only gradually. It was such stains that allowed Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Dr. Watson was again practicing medicine after a hiatus. Silver nitrate is a broad spectrum antibiotic, and dilute solutions were once routinely placed in newborn babiesâ eyes to kill bacteria such as syphilis.

PS. I'm enjoying your blog - keep up the good work.

By Richard Blaine (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

This brings to mind the fellow who was making the news a while back who got all smurfy from drinking colloidial silver. "Alternative Health" quacks have been promoting the stuff for some years, apparently not warning of the amusing side effect.

Here he is on YouTube:

Holy sh** that's a lot of silver....

I knew about the current crop of "blue ladies" and at least one "blue man" with argyria from use of colloidal silver as a home remedy, but I had no idea it could get as intense as this.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 12 May 2010 #permalink

Thanks for bring up Roueché, one of the best medical writers ever in my opinion.