The History of Activated Charcoal

3750B.C. to 21st century.

Ancient Egypt
Because it burns hotter, charcoal is superior to wood, and so, historically, it became the fuel used to smelt ores. 3750 B.C. is its earliest known recorded use. The Egyptians and Sumerians produced charcoal for the reduction of copper, zinc and tin ores in the manufacture of bronze. But, it was during that time that Egyptians also discovered a completely unrelated aspect of charcoal - it was a preservative. Posts scorched black by fire, when used for construction along the River Nile, were found not to rot when buried in the moist/wet soils. Without realizing it, the Egyptians began to capitalize on charcoal's anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties. This early innovation to preserve wood from rotting in wet situations continued down through the centuries, as other uses were discovered.

Water Treatment
Centuries later, wood tars produced from charcoal were used for caulking ships. Recent studies of the wrecks of Phoenician trading ships from around 450 B.C. suggest that drinking water was stored in charred wooden barrels. This practice was still in use in the 18th  Century for extending the use of potable water on long sea voyages.  Wood-staved barrels were scorched to preserve them, and the water or other items stored in them. How ingenious it was, a completely natural, organic, and environmentally friendly preservative! Today we have hundreds of patented sleek chrome water filters and activated charcoal is a major component.

Realizing that charcoal somehow inhibited whatever it was that promoted rotting, early Egyptians saw another application that catered to their suspicions about the afterlife. They wrapped the dead in cloth. They were then buried in layers of charcoal and sand to preserve the corpses. This was later improved upon by collecting byproducts of charcoal for use in their embalming industry.

1500 B.C.
The first recorded use of charcoal for medicinal purposes comes from Egyptian papyri around 1500 B.C. The principal use appears to have been to adsorb the unpleasant odors from putrefying wounds and from within the intestinal tract. Hippocrates (circa 400 B.C.), and then Pliny (50 A.D.), recorded the use of charcoal for treating a wide range of complaints including epilepsy, chlorosis (a severe form of iron-deficiency anemia), vertigo, and anthrax. Pliny writes in his epoch work Natural History (Vol. 36): “It is only when ignited and quenched that charcoal itself acquires its characteristic powers, and only when it seems to have perished that it becomes endowed with greater virtue.” What Pliny observed and noted so long ago is the very mystery science continues to exploit today.

In the second century A.D. Claudius Galen was the most famous doctor of the Roman Empire, and the ancient world’s strongest supporter of experimentation for scientific discovery. He produced nearly 500 medical treatises, many of them referring to the use of charcoals of both vegetable and animal origin, for the treatment of a wide range of diseases.

1700 A.D.
After the suppression of the sciences, first by Rome around 300 A.D. and then on through the Dark Ages, charcoal reemerged in the 1700s as a prescription for various conditions. Charcoal was often prescribed for bilious problems (excessive bile excretion). The use of charred wood was mentioned for the control of odors from gangrenous ulcers. ( p. 56-57)

1800 A.D.
By the mid 1800s charcoal, as a medicinal, suddenly became a well known treatment for a number of health conditions. Notice this entry:

"...Charcoal mixed with bread crumbs or yeast, has long been a favourite material for forming poultices, among army and navy surgeons. The charcoal poultice has also obtained a high character in hospital practice as an application to sloughing ulcers and gangrenous sores, and recently, this substance has afforded immense relief in numerous cases of open cancer, by soothing pain, correcting foetor, and facilitating the separation of the morbid structure from the surrounding parts. It is unnecessary to mention other instances of its utility; for in this form Charcoal is now admitted into the London Pharmacopoeia, and it is in general use in all naval, military, and civil hospitals..."  James Bird  M.R.C.S. (Surgeon - Royal Glamorgan Militia, 1857)

After the development of the charcoal activation process (1870 to 1920), many reports appeared in medical journals about activated charcoal as an antidote for poisons and as a cure for intestinal disorders, and much more. By the end of the 20th century Activated Charcoal was employed by every hospital, clinic, research department, and poison control center in the world in hundreds of varied applications. From wound dressings to ostomy bags, from drug overdose to kidney dialysis units, from hemoperfusion cartridges to drug purification, from the treatment of anemia in cancer patients to breast cancer surgery, the role of activated charcoal as a medicinal continues to grow.

21st Century
Today, charcoal is rated Category 1, “safe and effective”, by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for acute toxic poisoning. It is also listed in the U.S. homeopathic pharmacopoeia as having “marked absorptive power of gases”. A 1981 study, reported in Prevention magazine, confirmed what Native Americans have known for hundreds of years. Activated charcoal cuts down on the amount of gas produced by beans and other gas-producing foods, and adsorbs the excess gas as well as the bacteria that form the gas.  Brand name, over-the-counter drugs may be more commonly used for gas because of their attractive packaging and commercial value, but they are certainly not as effective.

Old charcoal remedies are repackaged today in glistening instruments and catchy packages, but the charcoal inside is still its same humble self - still unpretentious, still black, still dusty and messy to use, still relatively cheap, still ridiculed if not ignored, still largely un-thanked. But in hundreds if not thousands of ways charcoal touches our lives every day though we would scarcely know it. Crafted by the Creator's hands, its history resurrected from the burial sands of ancient Egypt, charcoal is one of the single greatest benefactors to the human race.

From the dawn of civilization, man has had an intimate relationship with charcoal. As an indispensable tool of technology and as a medicinal, charcoal is used in numerous ways to make our lives more healthy. It purifies the water we drink, the air we breathe, and detoxifies the soil we grow our food in. As a medicinal, charcoal is used in virtually every hospital in the world on a daily basis, as it plays an increasingly significant role in maintaining, restoring and enhancing man’s level of health. From drug and food poisoning, to kidney and liver dialysis machines, to wound dressings, to anemia of cancer, and much more, modern hospitals depend on the many uses of this most simple of remedies. These same benefits are also available to you. “In a world being poisoned by its own near-sighted wisdom, God has provided man with a microscopic black hole big enough to swallow much of what ails us.”


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