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The Styrian People Who Ate Arsenic For Breakfast

Khadija Bilal
Not on the menu these days...
Not on the menu these days...

Modern medicine is very different nowadays from what it once was. Delving back into the past, we can find all kinds of crazy examples of bizarre home remedies and strange pseudo-scientific solutions to common ailments

The scariest part of all is that we don’t even need to look too far back to find some of the most shocking examples.

In 19th century Austria, for example, a group of people named the Styrians actually consumed the deadly poison arsenic in large amounts on a regular basis.

Arsenic trioxide is a white, crystalline powder that closely resembles sugar. It has no odour or taste.

Arsenic trioxide is a white, crystalline powder that closely resembles sugar. It has no odour or taste.

Nowadays, we know exactly how dangerous arsenic can be. An exceptionally potent poison with high levels of toxicity, arsenic is a major health hazard, but centuries ago, back before people really understood the dangers of this element, it was used for all kinds of things.

It was an integral part of many traditional Chinese medicines, for example. Meanwhile, in Europe, arsenic compounds were commonly chosen as remedies for syphilis, before penicillin was eventually discovered.

Advertisement for ‘arsenic wafers’ as a beauty treatment

Advertisement for ‘arsenic wafers’ as a beauty treatment

In Great Britain, arsenic was used throughout history for various purposes. In the Elizabethan era, for instance, women would actually make use of arsenic, combined with other ingredients like chalk and vinegar, to create a kind of beauty product designed to brighten their skin.

In the Victorian age, arsenic was used to create elegant green dresses that were highly desirable, but deadly to the people who made them and very dangerous to those who wore them too.

Arsenic was an ingredient in many traditional Chinese medicines

Arsenic was an ingredient in many traditional Chinese medicines

All of these uses of arsenic are surprising to us nowadays, but quite possibly the worst example of all could be found in Styria.

A beautiful little region of southern Austria, Styria is known in modern times for its beautiful wineries and lush landscapes, but it was once home to a peculiar group of people known as the “toxicophagi” or “Arsenic Eaters of Styria”.

Yes, these people would actually consume arsenic in large doses on a regular basis, and the strangest part of all is that it didn’t actually kill them.

Historical view of the border between Styria and Carinthia, 1830

Historical view of the border between Styria and Carinthia, 1830

According to Scientific American, the reasoning behind the people’s decision to consume arsenic so frequently remains unknown to this day.

Historians have suggested that the habit may have been founded on the belief that arsenic could improve one’s complexion or offer a health boost to the respiratory system, but we’ll probably never know exactly why these individuals made such a strange decision. We do, however, know how they did it.

Observers reported that the Styrian people would consume little bits of arsenic with their coffee in the mornings.

At first, they’d take just a small dose, about the size of a lentil, a few times each week.

Over time, they started to up the dose, with reports revealing that one elderly man was actually taking regular doses of four grains of arsenic, which would be more than enough to kill a typical human in a matter of seconds. Shockingly, however, the man did not die.

Satirical cartoon by Honoré Daumier of a chemist giving a public demonstration of arsenic, 1841. Photo by Wellcome Images CC BY 2.0

Satirical cartoon by Honoré Daumier of a chemist giving a public demonstration of arsenic, 1841. Photo by Wellcome Images CC BY 2.0

In fact, the strangest part of the entire story is that most of the toxicophagi actually showed no real side effects or symptoms of their arsenic consumption.

In fact, they actually developed a kind of addiction to the compound and would start suffering from symptoms like vomiting and stomach pain when they stopped consuming it.

Reports from medical experts revealed that these symptoms would subside when the toxicophagi got their daily dose of arsenic, in much the same way that a drug addict can struggle with withdrawal symptoms.

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As shared by the Ultimate History Project, word of the Arsenic Eaters of Styria began to spread around Europe in the 19th century, and it was actually this that led to many women starting to use arsenic as part of their daily beauty regime.

However, over time, as scientific knowledge improved and we started to learn just how deadly arsenic could be, this trend fortunately began to die out, but the mystery of the toxicophagi remains.