Phossy Jaw

I came across many disturbing and gruesome diseases whilst being involved in the House of Lords parliamentary project, for example – chimney sweeps’ sooty warts, the plague and cholera. Another horrific disease I have found is phossy jaw.

So what is Phossy jaw?

The making of Lucifer matches brought on a dreadful disease in the workers. Its nickname was phossy jaw.

“It dates its rise only from the year 1833, when the discovery was made of a mode of applying phosphorus to the match itself. And it was not until the year 1845 that the surgeon of an infirmary at Vienna called medical attention to a most painful and loathsome disease found among the workplace in the phosphorus match manufactories now known as “necrosis of the jaw” or the phosphorus disease.”

The report continues “The suffering of a patient in the earlier stages of the disease and until it has run itself out, leaving the jaw quite dead and exposed, are intolerable.” …”that when the pain in the jaw has become confirmed, and followed by inflammation of the jaw, abscesses about the gums, and finally, the necrosis of the jaw, it is in many cases followed by death; in others by the removal of the diseased jaw by a surgical operation.”

How do people get the disease?

It is brought on by the exposure to the vapour of phosphorus acid diffused through the air in the manufacturing rooms.

Are there any possible precautions to take to stop the disease apart from ventilating the workplace?

Me Samuel Alexander Bell states “I heard that turpentine was a great absorbent of the phosphorus fumes, and made the dippers and the boys who attend to them and the stove (or drying) room wear little cans of turpentine round their necks.”

He also mentions whitewashing the dipping rooms two to three times a week.

He continues with” having heard lately that soda is very useful as an antidote to the phosphorus we make the dippers rinse their mouths out with soda and water every time they finish a set of dipping. But we have great trouble in enforcing these precautions and have frequently to punish the neglect of them by small fines.”

The full report on this disease, other illnesses and injuries can be found in the House of Lords paper : Children’s employment: first report to her Majesty of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trade and Manufactures not regulated by Law.

Session 1863 vol. XXXIX

This can be found here and is accessible to all of the Library’s registered users in Scotland.