Argyria: The Life and Adventures of a Silver Woman on Planet Earth, by Rosemary Jacobs. E-book. $6.
reviewed by Brad Usatch
In Argyria, Long Island native and longtime Orleans County resident Rosemary Jacobs chronicles more than five decades of struggle with a highly unusual burden.
At age 11, Ms. Jacobs began using nose drops prescribed by an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor for persistent sniffles that he attributed to allergies. The drops contained colloidal silver — silver suspended in a liquid solution. By the time she was 15, her skin began to show signs of discoloration. She was turning silver. A dermatologist confirmed a diagnosis of argyria, a condition caused by the internal use of colloidal silver that results in a permanent discoloration of the skin.
In the book, Ms. Jacobs details her life with argyria and her evolution as an activist battling the persistence of silver as a dietary supplement despite the Food and Drug Administration’s conclusion in 1999 that silver is not safe or effective in treating any known ailment.
If you’re looking for a heartwarming story about the power of forgiveness, keep moving. Whether or not Ms. Jacobs ever forgave her doctor is not a question the author spends much time with. What is clear is that she has no interest in glossing over a decision to treat her that was reckless, not supported by medical science at the time, and carried with it side effects that had been well-documented for decades.
While some may hear bitterness in her story, Ms. Jacob’s tone might better be understood as ferocity. The author repeatedly refers to herself as a street fighter, and it’s likely that few who have crossed her would be unwilling to grant her at least that much.
No one should, for no good reason, be forced to spend her one and only life tinted silver-gray. But Ms. Jacobs does seem to have a rare capacity for turning what, for many, would have been a life-shattering trauma into a platform to rally against a very specific injustice, which she hopes to prevent from happening to anyone else ever again.
“Learning that I was permanently disfigured was probably the worst thing in my life,” she writes. “I decided then and there that if people didn’t like the way I looked it was their problem, not mine. I was not going to let what other people thought of me stop me from leading the life I wanted to live.”
Did Ms. Jacobs really believe it herself when, as a teenager, she made that decision? Is anyone really that brave? None of us knows for certain how we would come to terms with such a diagnosis. We all want to be loved and accepted, and, to a greater extent than we care to admit, be just like everybody else.
From the time she was 15 years old, Ms. Jacobs never enjoyed that luxury. Yet, from that tender age, an age when the desire to fit in is at its zenith, she made a conscious decision to believe in herself — a decision that time has proved to be more than an empty self-affirmation.
As a young woman, Ms. Jacobs went on to study philosophy at St. John’s University. She traveled to Spain and later to Italy for training as a Montessori teacher. She taught in Germany and upon returning to the United States, established a Montessori school near Aspen, Colorado.
And though she records a laundry list of insults and injustices caused by reactions to her condition — like jobs lost and apartments denied — at no point in her life does it appear to occur to Ms. Jacobs that she ought to hide herself and spare the world from having to acknowledge her.
That is not to say she traipsed through life unaffected by argyria. From the moment of her diagnosis she developed an obsessive interest in medical research — particularly regarding silver and argyria — but also concerning any health issue or treatment in her life. Whether it was dermabrasion or breast cancer, Ms. Jacobs was determined not to get burned again by putting blind trust in any physician, no matter how qualified.
When, in 1984, she persisted in asking her oncologist for the title of his primary reference book, the doctor asked, “You aren’t going to get it are you? It costs over $100.”
“Of course I am,” she answered.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I’m the person in charge of my case. I can live with my mistakes. I can’t live with yours.”
Some may find it tedious, but her review of the history of scientific literature regarding medical silver applications was, for me, the most fascinating part of the book. Most of her research was conducted before the Internet was available, meaning she had to find actual journal articles in the halls of medical history libraries. Often that meant discovering the existence of some piece of research in the citation of another, and then waiting for the journal to be delivered through an interlibrary loan.
A lover of animals, peace and quiet, and cold weather, Ms. Jacobs and her mother, Rose, moved to Quebec and later the Northeast Kingdom.
At a bookstore in St. Johnsbury in 1995, she came across an article that would spark the activism that has fueled her to this very day. The words “colloidal silver” printed in an alternative animal health care magazine caught her eye, but rather than warning of the dangers of silver, the article promoted a silver product that later turned out to be sold by the author. She wrote the editor asking for proof of the health claims in the article.
The response she received, not from the editor but from the author herself, fell somewhere between defensive and dismissive. Suddenly alarmed that colloidal silver had not been relegated to the dustbins of history, Ms. Jacobs embarked on a two-front war: against the silver backers of alternative medicine itself, and against the legal framework that permitted its continued marketing.
She found sympathetic ears at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but learned they were nearly powerless to help.
“[FDA compliance officer Roma Egli] told me about the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) which for all practical purposes, had taken jurisdiction for regulating supplements away from the FDA and given it to no other agency. Basically, what DSHEA had done was create a whole new legal category of food products labeled ‘dietary supplements….’ Under DSHEA, manufacturers cannot make either drug claims or fraudulent claims for their products. But neither do they have to show that their supplements are safe and effective before they sell them.”
It was as an activist that Ms. Jacobs’ lifelong scholarship found its power. She attacked the uninformed and misinformed from the bright halls of federal bureaucracies to the darker corners of early Internet chatrooms. Wherever she confronted a claim that silver had beneficial uses, she demanded to see the evidence. And to whomever said it had no potential for harm, she offered herself as proof.
She challenged silver hucksters and true believers. But whereas the fact of a footnote alone might convince the layperson that using silver was supported by scientific research, Ms. Jacobs was often familiar with the works cited. She knew that the same handful of articles repeatedly referenced by colloidal silver advocates were often either early twentieth century articles written by a doctor who sold silver products; actual medical research that did not support the point for which it was footnoted; or the work of confirmed crackpots of the foil hat variety.
The state of Vermont also finds itself in Ms. Jacobs’ crosshairs for its inclusion of intraveinous colloidal silver in its naturopathic doctor (ND) formulary — essentially a list of treatments approved for use by NDs. It’s in this section that she goes after alternative medicine as a whole. She never contends people should not have the right to pursue alternative therapies, but she does take issue with affording NDs the prescription authority of medical doctors, and questions the state’s push to force third parties (insurance companies) to cover the cost of care provided by NDs.
Argyria is many books really. It’s a straightforward, chronological biography of a woman who has lived most of her 72 years with a unique challenge. It’s a philosophical treatise on the treatment of the other, and how for all our sophistication, we still often react with fear to anyone different from us. Most importantly, it’s an exposé of a problem that won’t go away: that products and treatments that have little or no therapeutic value but may have life-altering side effects are still pushed on the public. In Ms. Jacobs’ view, the force behind that push is a powerful supplement lobby masquerading as unaffiliated founts of accumulated folk wisdom that “Western” medicine does not want the public to know about.
The author uses her life story to support her activism and give context to her cause. She is a one-woman protest movement, using her own skin as the evidence that something must be done. Witnessed amid the turbulent political winds of the present day, it’s possible to imagine that this may be Ms. Jacobs’ moment. Disruptive and anti-establishment, she is not beholden to the left or the right, but to her own understanding of the truth.
Not everyone will like this book. Readers who view “Western” medicine with suspicion, and are committed to homeopathic or naturopathic practices will likely take offense at the author’s treatment of what she calls “belief-based” systems of medicine.
Likewise, Bernie Sanders fans will have to choose between anger at the author or disappointment in the Senator, for her characterization of Senator Sanders as someone who rails against “big pharma,” but finds himself beholden to “big naturopathy.”
Finally, don’t hold out for a redemptive win by the little guy. There is no cache of money in the stone wall, no exploding death star. For all Ms. Jacobs has done to spread the word about what she sees as the pointless risks of colloidal silver, a Google search reveals that it’s still readily available, on line, or at Walgreens for about $12 for a two-ounce bottle.