• FA-116546 © Technisches Museum Wien, Photo: Peter Sedlaczek
Collection Area
Production Technology
Chemical Production Engineering
1850 - 1899

Display case: Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, c 1895


‘Those in darkness drop from sight’: the manufacture of phosphorus matchsticks caused horrendous upper jaw pathologies among many employees, not to mention severe pain. Some even died of it.

The jaw sections at the Technisches Museum Wien are from the collection of Dr Eugen Lewy, an occupational health physician. A text on the exhibit itself provides a vivid description of the characteristics and impact of phosphorus necrosis:

‘A peculiar disease of the bones is to be observed in phosphorus matchstick factories among workers employed in the manufacture of the phosphorus mass and the dipping of the matchsticks into said mass. Said workers are importuned by toothache, occasionally at first and then continuously. Prolonged exposure to the phosphorus causes the pain to spread from the teeth to the upper and lower jaws, sometimes to the face as a whole and the contiguous skin areas. The teeth become loose and ultimately fall out. Abscesses form on the gums; and when the physician’s probe is inserted into the abscess openings, it encounters exposed areas that suggest that necrosis has already caused the bone to die off.

The palatine bones, nasal cavity and zygomatic bones become diseased under the influence of the phosphorus in a manner similar to the effect noted in the jawbones. As the disease progresses the periosteum detaches itself from the bone surface, and the palatine and zygomatic bones as well as the nasal cavity die off and can be removed through the abscess openings. Other changes occur before that on the upper and lower jaws. They are covered with loose, porous deposits (newly formed bone) and gain considerably in size and weight due to the thickening of their substance until finally they too die off either completely or in individual sections and lie as foreign bone deposits in the area formed by the periosteum.’

Date of origin: c 1895

Inv.Nr. 34379
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