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Was Pitt the Younger poisoned by his port?

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William Pitt the Younger (Callie Jones)Next Thursday, 28 May 2009, is the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Pitt the Younger. He was Britain’s youngest ever prime minister, first appointed to the post at the age of 24.

He served as PM for nearly 19 years in a parliamentary career that lasted 25 years.

Pitt was a frail child and was at first taught at home. But he was such an intelligent pupil that while still only 14 he was admitted to Cambridge to study classics, mathematics, English history and political philosophy. He graduated at the age of 17 and went on to study law.

Pitt’s health problems included an inherited form of gout, and when he suffered an attack at the age of 14 his physician, Dr Anthony Addington, prescribed a bottle of port a day as a cure. Pitt continued to drink throughout his life.

Dr Addington’s son Henry, who himself went on to serve as prime minister, commented: “Mr Pitt liked a glass of port very well, and a bottle better.”

Pitt’s fondness for port may well have exacerbated his gout, since port has been linked with saturnine gout, a form of the disease arising from kidney damage due to lead poisoning. The name comes from the belief of medieval alchemists that the planet Saturn had lead-like properties.

Port had become a popular drink in England early in the 18th century. War with France had deprived wine drinkers of French produce and merchants were allowed to import Portuguese wines at a low rate of duty.

Because the long sea trip from Portugal to England could spoil the wine, the wine makers fortified it with brandy to improve its shelf-life. But they are also believed to have added sugar of lead (plumbous acetate) as a preservative and sweetener.

Port bottles from Pitt’s time have been tested in recent years and found to contain large amounts of lead.

Port was not the only alcoholic beverage to be adulterated with lead salts. Many other drinks were contaminated during the 18th century and well into the 19th.

The addition of lead was not always deliberate. In the case of rum, lead salts leached into the drink from the glaze applied to ceramic storage jars.

We may never know for sure whether nasties in his port wine added to Pitt’s health problems. But he died in 1806 at the age of 46, and from contemporary accounts it appears that he succumbed to renal failure and cirrhosis. This suggests that his alcohol consumption was a contributory factor, possibly complicated by lead poisoning.

 

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