A Short(ish) History of Silver as an Antimicrobial

A Short(ish) History of Silver as an Antimicrobial
Ashley Heywood
Written by Ashley Heywood

More abundant than gold, how has this precious metal helped revolutionise hygiene?

Silver is a special metal for many reasons; it has the highest thermal and electrical conductivity and also holds the title of being the most reflective metal. Most importantly (for us anyway) silver can be used to prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. 

No-one knows precisely when Silver was first identified; however archaeologists have identified the remains of silver smelting operations that date back to before 4000 BC and it seems that there was high demand for this seemingly impractical metal right from the off.

Fast forward 1000 years and the civilisation of Ancient Egypt was in full swing, with silver enjoying more popularity due to its benefits as a natural antibacterial. 

Around 1200BC the Phoenicians knew enough about silver to store water, wine and vinegar in silver vessels to keep it fresh; in 500BC the Greeks and Romans were doing the same. The Father of Western Medicine himself – Hippocrates – acknowledged the healing properties of silver in 400BC.

American Pioneers of the 19th century put silver dollars in milk containers to help slow down any bacterial growth and in the same century silver was used in medicine – in surgical stitches, eye treatments for newborns to prevent blindness and also to combat both typhoid and anthrax. 

Soldiers and victims benefited greatly from silver compounds used to prevent infection in the terrible wartime conditions of World War I. A decade later over 3 million prescriptions were being written annually for medicinal silver. 

Even today silver is used by none other than NASA in water purification systems and the impressive legacy of silver continues at an even greater pace due to advances in technology  that allow us to integrate silver in more materials than ever before, giving us the ability to protect plastics, textiles, coatings and paints from potentially dangerous bacterial growth.


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