Silver has many remarkable properties which make it very desirable. One of these properties is the unique ability to disable the respiratory system of many pathogens. This makes it very effective in controlling these organisms. In past centuries, silver was commonly used for antimicrobial purposes. Various forms of silver are still used in hospitals today for the same reason. Below are some examples of these historical and modern silver uses.
Many civilizations stored liquids in contact with silver to maintain freshness and help retard spoilage. The reason for this is because silver helps to suppress the growth of bacteria in these liquids. A variety of examples can be cited throughout history. In the Australian outback, settlers would suspend silverware inside of their water tanks. Herodotus details in his "Histories" that the kings of Persia (including King Cyrus) would only drink water held in silver containers from their home river the Choaspes. Even early American settlers would place a silver dollar in milk to retard spoiling before refrigeration was available.
Ancient royalty and members of the royal court dined using silver utensils, plates and cups. Their food was frequently stored in silver lined containers. Infants were often fed with a silver spoon in an effort to keep them as healthy as possible. This daily consumption of minute particles of silver contributed to a remarkably healthier life. The peasants, who ate from iron, pewter, earthen or copper kitchenware were more susceptible to sickness than their noble brethren.
Although history provides very convincing evidence of silvers remarkable properties, modern examples are even more stunning. Prior to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, colloidal silver was used extensively for many ailments. It is actually listed in the Physician's Desk Reference of the time as a treatment for a variety of symptoms. Silver nitrate was a common treatment for stomach ulcers at the turn of the century (it is now believed that ulcers are caused by bacteria and not stress). Today many hospitals still put drops of it in the eyes of newborn infants to prevent blindness caused by some sexually transmitted diseases. It has also been used to control local infections.
This use of silver nitrate led Dr. Carl Moyer of Washington University (Head of Surgery 1951-1965) to begin experimentation. He discovered it was very useful for sterilization and went on to establish a burn unit at Barnes Hospital in 1964. In burn cases, silver compounds speed up the healing process dramatically. It is for this reason that the vast majority of burn centers across America use silver sulfadiazine today. The reason they still use a time tested silver compound in these centers is because of a simple fact. Using an antibiotic on a large damaged section of the human body would result in more harm than benefit. In some cases this results in death of the patient. However, silver sulfadiazine actually helps the patient to heal.
Silver is also used for sensitive situations in other industries. NASA began using a silver based water purification system in the Apollo spacecraft. This system was chosen over many others because it was light, required minimal power and eliminated bacteria successfully. These bacteria include E. coli, Pseudomonas, Legionella Pneumophila (Legionnaires' disease), Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Salmonella, and others. This ingenuity led to the development of many commercial and industrial applications. Today many modern airlines use silver water filters to guard against water-borne diseases.
Silver water filtration systems are now used throughout the world. These systems completely eliminate the need for caustic chemicals and can even kill organisms resistant to chlorine. Therefore, they are perfect for delicate environments. Places that use these systems include the University of Texas, Purdue University, YMCA centers, Disney World and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Cincinnati Zoo also uses this technology for its arctic bird exhibit, sea lion tank and walrus pool.
Silver is now being used by the military and commercial vendors in clothing design. By incorporating silver into the fabrics, disease and odor causing organisms are controlled. One of the primary concerns here was to reduce the possibility of "jungle rot", which has plagued the military in wet campaigns.
There are many other uses for silver which are not mentioned here. With so many important antimicrobial roles, you may wonder why silver became lost in the mainstream medical community. When penicillin and other antibiotics achieved widespread popularity, silver was virtually forgotten. These new drugs offered much larger profit margins and were easily patented. Silver as an element cannot be patented and thus offers no exclusivity in the marketplace.