Exhibit Review: The Devouring Element

color booklet for paint

For a long time, lead was added to paint for its moisture-resistant and quick drying properties. Lead paint has been banned since 1978 for residential use. (Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health
Mütter Museum
19 S. 22nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

In the haunting Francisco Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son, a crouching, wild-eyed Saturn consumes a bloody, half-eaten child’s body, representing the Greek myth about the god who swallowed his children at birth after hearing a prophecy that one would steal his throne.

A replica of this painting hangs on the back wall of the Mütter Museum’s temporary exhibit space, setting a dark tone for its newest occupant, The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health. Historically lead has been associated with Saturn, the god of melancholy. As exhibit text explains, both the substance and the figure were considered to be corrupted, though each held the potential for purification. “We’ve had a love/hate relationship with lead since antiquity,” says museum director Dr. Robert Hicks. “Its health risks have always been known, but its benefits often superseded its risks.”

The images and ephemera on display testify to the pervasiveness of lead-based products over the course of human history. While it’s common knowledge that lead was once widely used in paints, pipes, and gasoline, many of its older applications are surprising. In the section on lead in food and drink, for example, one learns that lead acetate is sweet to the taste and was used as an artificial sweetener for Roman royalty. Historians suspect this lead to widespread sterility among the empire’s leaders.

The consequences of lead poisoning vary and usually result from long-term exposure. The substance settles in bones and teeth before leeching out. It commonly attacks the nervous system, but also weakens joints, paralyzes muscles, decreases fertility, causes gout and colic, and can lead to death. It’s particularly dangerous for children, in whom it stunts cognitive development. Chronically exposed children unknowingly find themselves in Saturn’s merciless grip, and there is no going back once the damage has been done.