Monday, July 14, 2008

A Really Bad Pencil

I recently saw an auction for a rather weird pencil, and I bought it. From the markings on the case it appears to be an H & S brand number 485 Copper-Pencil, made in Germany.The case is wooden, you just pull the two tight fitting halves apart. The auction taught me a new word as the case was described as a treen case. My dictionary says treen = small domestic wooden antique.The pencil tip is a hard blue substance, quite a beautiful colour really. It doesn’t write though! A little bit of post auction web research has lead me to this conclusion – it’s a copper sulphate pencil, once used by doctors and vets to burn flesh off their patients. Gaarrrrr ! The mind-boggles. Thanks to the long term harmful effects of the local sun, I, like most Pakeha, am familiar with getting bits of me burned off by the doctor, but at least these days they use liquid-nitrogen which is quick and easy and usually only in the “sharp sting” rather than “serious pain” category. No manly stoic fa├žade here, I just cringe thinking about this pencil being used to chemically burn bits off me.

It appears copper is still used on horses, but I won’t be telling my pony-mad nieces about that.For humans the references I found for these copper pencils are mostly medical journals from the late 1800’s and usually in relation to treating conjunctivitis and other eye-infections. Apply the pencil to the eyelids to burn off the infected and granulated flesh. They ain’t kiddin’. Here’s an extract from the memoirs of a British doctor in the Near East in the late 1930’s. It seems eye infections were extremely common amongst desert peoples.
“In the long summers most out-patients had conjunctivitis and they came by the hundred for 'drops'. The more threatening condition was trachoma which affected the upper lid and could deform the thin 'plate' that kept it in shape. This led to the eyelashes wiping the cornea and, when someone cut them short they scratched it. To prevent the cornea becoming opaque, the patient came as an out-patient to hospital for an operation. The common treatment for trachoma was to pencil the inside of the lid with the 'hajar gehennam', the 'stone of hell', a copper sulphate pencil.”
Here’s another bit of a shocker from the same doctor, “The thin strip of mucous membrane was cut from the patients lower lip. It was anaesthetised with a solution of cocaine. Cocaine has such a bad reputation these days that I must digress and mention how else it was so marvellous for us. A shepherd boy had been drinking water from a jar with a thin spout, pouring it straight down his throat. It contained a leech and when I saw him, it was hanging down from one of his vocal cords. It was with a solution of cocaine that I sprayed his throat so that he would not feel my instruments trying to grab the thing. We were both very patient and won in the end.”
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Well, I don't really know what it feels like to have a copper pencil used on you, maybe it's not all that bad, but the whole concept just seems painful and wrong. Copper sulphate isn't generally in the same nasty league as things like sulphuric acid, but I just don't see having a piece of 'the stone of hell' stuck in my eye as being an enjoyable experience.


Julia said...

Wow, that's really strange! I'm having a hard time figuring out how it works -- does it sting if you touch the tip of the pencil with your finger, or does it have to be "activated" somehow first?

Be careful, Dave. Anything called the "stone of hell" can't be pleasant!

kiwi-d said...

Hi Julia.
Well I don't realy know how it works either. I recall playing around with copper sulphate back in school and never really considering it dangerous. But then I've just read a few safety data sheets and incident reports and they make sober reading. Like most things I guess its all a matter exposure duration, concentration, etc.

I imagine the natural moisture level of eyelid skin etc would be enough to disolve and activate the surface of the pencil in use. We need a medical historian or a vet! I'm afraid I'm not going to tempt fate and experiment on my finger :-)

Julia said...

Good! It occurred to me after I posted my comment that it could sound as though I was egging you "in the name of science" so I'm glad you are too level-headed for that.

It sure is a pretty blue, though. :D

kiwi-d said...

One of the incident reports was a current one for a young Middle Eastern child with badly burned hands from a "traditional remedy" with copper sulphate, otherwise I probably would have had a go.

Germ said...

come on Kiwi....take one for the team. don't be a sissy. hehehe. seriously, I wouldn't recommend testing it out, but do it anyway.

Kevin said...

I might be wrong, and I usually am, but I recall back in the late 60's early 70's buying (or rather my Mom buying) here in Toronto copper sulphate sticks to treat mouth ulcers.

The stick was about 5" long with a dried glob on the end of it. With some coxing on my Mom's behalf I would open my mouth and my Mom would quickly wet the stick under tap water and jab the mouth ulcer.

I remember screaming but not too loud.

Did it work? I think it temporally cuaterized the mouth ulcer.

I do recall that after one or two "treatments" with the stick, I opted to suffer in silence with future mouth ulcers.


kiwi-d said...

Kevin - thanks very much for this information.

Stuart said...

All I ever used copper sulfate for was an electro-plating experiment for school.

I guess I missed out, huh?