In the early nineties of the 17th century, the German city of Ulm and its surroundings were struck by an unusual epidemic. The victims had severe abdominal pain, cases of loss of consciousness and even death were noted. The city doctor Eberhard Gokkel, who served at the same time at two nearby monasteries, turned his main attention to the monks. Since the monastic community was a closed collective with a common lifestyle and diet, Dr. Gokkel decided that it would be easier to understand the causes of the disease on this material than on free townspeople with their heterogeneous lifestyle. It turned out that those monks who for various reasons abstained from wine remained healthy. And two monks, who came to the pilgrimage from another community, recovered, returning to their monasteries.
Epidemiology was still in its infancy, but Dr. Gokkel proved to be an astute epidemiologist. He settled in one of the monasteries and began to live the life of the brethren. At each meal, he, like all monks, was offered a glass of wine. And soon the doctor developed the first symptoms of a mysterious disease.
Then Gokkel turned to the wine supplier - the butler of the local prince. And I learned that wine is sweetened with a special solution. Sugar was still unknown, and either honey or boiled sweet juices of some fruits were used instead. But a different method was often used, especially in winemaking. Lead lithium (a white powder representing lead oxide) was dissolved in wine, and the solution was then evaporated to give a sweet liquid. It was also added to sour wine. And although the doctor noted that this sweet solution turns the worst and sour wine into the best kind of claret, he suggested that the disease is caused by lead.
But this discovery was somewhat belated: the abbot and treasurer of one of the monasteries died (apparently, using their official position, they consumed more sweet wines than ordinary monks). Many doctors of that time, especially those living in wine-growing regions, approved the use of lead compounds for the "refinement" of wines and did not see any danger in this.
Perhaps medicine and toxicology benefited from the fact that Ulm, Gokkel's hometown, was not a wine-producing, but a wine-merchant: every day hundreds of carts with barrels of wine from the Neckar Valley arrived in the city, here the barrels were loaded onto ships and floated down the Danube to other areas and countries. The wine trade was the main source of income for the Württemberg principality, and no one wanted to destroy it. When, in 1696, the Prince of Württemberg learned from his court physician about the yet unpublished discovery of Gokkel, he issued a decree banning the improvement of wine with lead solution. And violators and even those who knew but did not report the crime were threatened with the death penalty.
In 1697, Dr. Gokkel published a book with a long title: "A remarkable account of the previously unknown WINE DISEASE, which in 1694, 95 and 96 caused the sweetening of sour wine with lead glut, which led to cities, monasteries and castles, and sometimes in villages, to many severe symptoms, as a result of which many persons of both high and low status were seriously affected, or even lost their lives. "
Actually, the use of lead compounds to "improve" wine began in ancient Rome, from where wine was exported in clay amphorae to Germany and even to the British Isles. So that during the journey the wine did not turn sour, the Greeks, who carried it across the Mediterranean long before the Romans, added pine resin to amphorae, the phytoncides of which killed unwanted bacteria of acetic acid fermentation (and there is still a kind of Greek wine "retzina", in its name it is easy to hear the word "rubber" means resin). But the Romans preferred a different method. They boiled fresh grape juice for a long time in a lead cauldron, boiling it two-thirds of its volume to a syrup called glanders, or defrutum. This syrup, which included lead compounds, effectively stopped spoilage not only in wine, but also in fruits and olives. Many compounds of this heavy metal taste sweet, so that the wine became sweeter not only from the grape sugar, but also from the tartaric lead, which appeared as a result of the long boiling of the juice in a lead cauldron. And this sweet wine still could not turn sour during storage!
Sapa recipes are contained in the books of Pliny, Columella and other authors. The liquid obtained according to ancient recipes is a dark viscous aromatic syrup with a lead content of about a gram per liter. Adding it to wine in the usual proportions for that time, we get a drink with a lead content of about 20 milligrams per liter. Drinking a liter of such wine a day (and in 17th century Germany, as a rule, they drank more), you can acquire symptoms of lead poisoning within a few weeks.
In the early stages of poisoning, headache, insomnia, jaundice, diarrhea are characteristic, then severe pains in the stomach and joints appear, and intestinal paralysis occurs. Even later (lead accumulates in the body, almost without being excreted), nervous symptoms appear: deafness, blindness, general paralysis ... The case often ends in death.
Several centuries passed before the harm of the Roman way of preserving wine became apparent. True, many Germanic tribes even during the time of Julius Caesar prohibited the use of Roman wines, having noticed their toxicity. And the symptoms of chronic lead wine poisoning were described in 1639 by Cardinal Richelieu's personal physician François Situa (however, he blamed a supernova for the epidemic, the outbreak of which Tycho Brahe wrote in 1572). But in 17th century Germany, Roman recipes were widely reprinted and used. They tried to treat lead poisoning with a common medieval remedy - bloodletting and even horse riding (shaking somewhat stimulated the movements of the paralyzed intestines). Of course, such methods did not bring relief. Effective remedies for lead disease have been found only in our time - these are medicines that actively bind with lead and remove it from the body.
It is curious that the climate change that was taking place at that time, the so-called minor glaciation, was indirectly reflected in the Ulm epidemic. The weather in Germany in the last decade of the century was especially cold and rainy, which is why the grapes did not ripen well, gained little sugar and the wines turned out sour - hence the desire to sweeten them according to an old Roman recipe.
Even before Gokkel, lead poisoning was described by another German doctor - Samuel Stockhausen from the city of Goslar. Lead was mined in the Harz mountains, and Stockhausen noticed that miners and metallurgists who dealt with the dust of lead ores or with lead vapors in its smelting suffered from severe disorders. Gokkel, having read the book of a doctor from Goslar, realized that the symptoms of an occupational disease of miners are identical to the symptoms of "wine sickness", which Stockhausen apparently did not know about: in the north of Germany they drink mostly beer, not wine.
The news of Gokkel's discovery spread very slowly. Only about a hundred years later, the practice of "improving" wine with lead compounds became a thing of the past, and then only because cheap cane sugar spread from Cuba and Jamaica, and in addition, a new food antibacterial agent, sulfites, was found (they are still used in winemaking and in the production of fruit juices).
But professional lead poisoning remained commonplace for a long time. Charles Dickens described in one of his essays the woeful fate of the poor in London, forced to choose between starvation and work in the production of lead whitewash, which often ended in death from poisoning within a month or two. Nowadays, lead paint is banned almost everywhere, and then dishonest traders sometimes mixed white powder with flour to make it whiter and add weight.
The last high-profile case of food poisoning with lead occurred in 1994 in Hungary, where a batch of paprika powder was discovered, to which red lead oxide, red lead oxide, was added to enhance the red color.