Devon colic was an illness that affected people in the English county of Devon during parts of the 17th and 18th centuries most autumns , before it was discovered to be caused by lead poisoning from the trough of the cider mill.
it was first described in 1703 by Dr William Musgrave of Exeter in a paper De arthritide symptomatica. Symptoms began with severe abdominal pains and the condition was occasionally fatal. Cider was the traditional drink of Devonshire people at the time, in fact it was a big industry with a lot of export to London, and the connection between the colic and cider drinking had been observed for many years. The condition was commonly attributed to the acidity of the beverage.Such a dissertation by Dr John Huxham.
Sir George Baker in an elegant piece of epidemiology research which was read to the College of Physicians in London in 1767 put forward the hypothesis that poisoning from lead in cider was to blame. He observed that the symptoms of the colic were similar to those of lead poisoning. He pointed out that lead was used in the cider making process as a component of the cider mills . He also most importantly conducted chemical tests with Dr Saunders an expert in chemistry to demonstrate the presence of lead in Devon apple juice. Five separate experiments were performed, each demonstrating lead in the cider from Devon; none in the cider from Herefordshire. Dr Baker was born in Devon in the cider making areas of South Hams on the south coast just east of Plymouth. He rapidly rose though the ranks of medicine due to his critical thinking and became President and treated George III for his mental illness.
One aspect he noted was that although common in Devon, it was not common in Herefordshire, but was noted in Poitou France from drinking wine. This he hypothesised was from the fact in Devon the cider apples are ground in large stone troughs held together with iron bands and the joints filled with lead. lead spouting also used.
This was a different construction to the mills from Herefordshire where no lead was used. He gleaned the latter from Dr Wall of Worcester with whom he corresponded. Dr Wall was very meticulous and noted there were several cases of Devon Colic after one cider maker used a lead trough to store cider in on one occasion.
The publication of his results met with some hostile reaction from cider manufacturers, keen to defend their product, An essay was written by Rev Thomas Alcock who had earlier defended cider from Lord Bute’s tax. However once Baker’s conclusions became accepted and the elimination of lead from the cider presses was undertaken, the colic declined. By 1818, Baker’s son reported that it was “hardly known to exist” in Devon