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The Book of Rare and Deadly Wallpaper Held (Carefully) at MSU

By July 26, 2021Literature, News

A book of rare and deadly wallpaper is held at the Michigan State University, and if you touch it with bare hands it could kill you.

The book, named Shadows From the Walls of Death printed in 1874 and contains around 100 wallpaper samples saturated with deadly levels of arsenic.

The book was created by Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, a Civil War surgeon and later professor of chemistry at Michigan State Agricultural college (now MSU), whose aim was to raise awareness of the dangers of arsenic-pigmented wallpaper.

The beautiful pigment commonly known as Scheele’s Green, or Paris Green, was a mix of arsenic and copper, and proved very popular- by the end of the 19th century around 65 percent of all wallpaper in the United States used this pigment. Although arsenic was widely known as a poison when ingested, no one realised the risks of using it in this way. Dr. Kedzie put forward the theory that microscopic particles would regularly shed from the paper and be inhaled or ingested without anyone in the home realising until it was too late.

100 copies of the doctor’s book were created and donated to public libraries across Michigan in hopes of raising awareness of the deadly nature of the pigment in the wallpaper.

Only four copies of the rare tome now exist, most destroyed by libraries who were worried about poisoning library-goers. Most libraries, concerned about poisoning their patrons, destroyed their volumes. One copy exists in the MSU, held in a green box, and each page covered in plastic.

Before 1998 when the book was covered anyone wanting to examine it had to wear gloves and patrons were warned not to absent-mindedly lick their fingers before turning a page…

Another copy has been digitised by National Library of Medicine and is freely available online, but even that process wasn’t without risks. Dr. Stephen Greenberg, head of the rare books and early manuscripts section of the NLM’s History of Medicine division, says they had to wear full protective gear while working.

“It was scanned under laboratory conditions, under a fume hood,” Dr. Greenberg says, “Picture guys wearing masks and hoods.”

Andrew Lundeen, a staff member at MSU’s Turfgrass Information Center says no digital image can do it justice: “It’s worth seeing in person. The light plays off of it beautifully.”

“But it’s like a poison dart frog. The most beautiful things can be the most dangerous.”

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