Black lungs in the general population: a new look at an old dispute

Kenneth Donaldson, William Wallace, Christopher Henry, Anthony Seaton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Almost from the time that autopsies were first routinely carried out, darkening of lungs with increasing age was described. Different explanations for the origin of the accumulating black pigment arose and by the early 19th century 3 hypotheses had emerged :-1) soot inhaled into the lungs from the air; 2) carbon accumulating in the lungs from abnormal pulmonary carbon dioxide metabolism; 3) pigment derived from the blood. In 1813 the English physician and chemist George Pearson published a paper in which he described the recovery of the black pigment from lungs and its chemical analysis. Pearson declared the black pigment to be airborne carbon/soot from the burning of coal and wood. He described these particles depositing in ‘black spots’ in the terminal airways and accumulating in the peribronchial lymph nodes, forming ‘black glands’. Despite Pearson’s prescient account, debate continued and the true explanation, given in that paper, was not fully accepted until the late 19th century.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
Issue number2:2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019


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