Target Health Blog


September 17, 2018

History of Medicine

One of the 'Ain Ghazal Statues, made from lime plaster
Photo credit: By Smithsonian Institution -, Public Domain,

Calcium is a chemical element with symbol Ca and atomic number 20. An alkaline earth metal, calcium is a reactive metal that forms a dark oxide-nitride layer when exposed to air. Its physical and chemical properties are most similar to its heavier homologs strontium and barium. It is the fifth most abundant element in Earth's crust and the third most abundant metal, after iron and aluminum. The most common calcium compound on Earth is calcium carbonate, found in limestone and the fossilized remnants of early sea life; gypsum, anhydrite, fluorite, and apatite are also sources of calcium.

Calcium compounds were known for millennia, although their chemical makeup was not understood until the 17th century. Lime as a building material and as plaster for statues was used as far back as around 7000 BCE. The first dated lime kiln dates back to 2500 BCE and was found in Khafajah, Mesopotamia. At about the same time, dehydrated gypsum (CaSO4-2H2O) was being used in the Great Pyramid of Giza; this material would later be used for the plaster in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The ancient Romans used lime mortars made by heating limestone (CaCO3); the name "calcium" itself derives from the Latin word calx "lime" Vitruvius noted that the lime that resulted was lighter than the original limestone, attributing this to the boiling of the water; in 1755, Joseph Black proved that this was due to the loss of carbon dioxide, which as a gas had not been recognized by the ancient Romans. In 1787, Antoine Lavoisier suspected that lime might be an oxide of a fundamental chemical element. In his table of the elements, Lavoisier listed five "salifiable earths" (i.e., ores that could be made to react with acids to produce salts (salis = salt, in Latin): chaux (calcium oxide), magnesie (magnesia, magnesium oxide), baryte (barium sulfate), alumine (alumina, aluminium oxide), and silice (silica, silicon dioxide). About these "elements", Lavoisier speculated:

We are probably only acquainted as yet with a part of the metallic substances existing in nature, as all those which have a stronger affinity to oxygen than carbon possesses, are incapable of being reduced to a metallic state, and consequently, being only presented to our observation under the form of oxyds, are confounded with earths. It is extremely probable that barytes, which we have now arranged with earths, is in this situation; for in many experiments it exhibits properties nearly approaching those of metallic bodies. It is even possible that all the substances we call earths may be only metallic oxyds, irreducible by any known process.

Calcium, along with its congeners magnesium, strontium, and barium, was first isolated and named as an element, by Humphry Davy in 1808. Following the work of Jons Jakob Berzelius and Magnus Martin af Pontin on electrolysis, Davy isolated calcium and magnesium by putting a mixture of the respective metal oxides with mercury(II) oxide on a platinum plate which was used as the anode, the cathode being a platinum wire partially submerged into mercury. Electrolysis then gave calcium-mercury and magnesium-mercury amalgams, and distilling off the mercury gave the metal. However, pure calcium cannot be prepared in bulk by this method and a workable commercial process for its production was not found until over a century later.

Calcium compounds are widely used in many industries: in foods and pharmaceuticals for calcium supplementation, in the paper industry as bleaches, as components in cement and electrical insulators, and in the manufacture of soaps. On the other hand, the metal in pure form has few applications due to its high reactivity; still, in small quantities it is often used as an alloying component in steelmaking, and sometimes, as a calcium-lead alloy, in making automotive batteries.

Calcium is the most abundant metal and the fifth-most abundant element in the human body. As electrolytes, calcium ions play a vital role in the physiological and biochemical processes of organisms and cells: in signal transduction pathways where they act as a second messenger; in neurotransmitter release from neurons; in contraction of all muscle cell types; as cofactors in many enzymes; and in fertilization. Calcium ions outside cells are important for maintaining the potential difference across excitable cell membranes as well as proper bone formation.

Calcium isotope fractionation during mineral formation has led to several applications of calcium isotopes. In particular, the 1997 observation by Skulan and DePaolo that calcium minerals are isotopically lighter than the solutions from which the minerals precipitate is the basis of analogous applications in medicine and in paleooceanography. In animals with skeletons mineralized with calcium, the calcium isotopic composition of soft tissues reflects the relative rate of formation and dissolution of skeletal mineral. In humans, changes in the calcium isotopic composition of urine have been shown to be related to changes in bone mineral balance. When the rate of bone formation exceeds the rate of bone resorption, the 44Ca/40Ca ratio in soft tissue rises and vice versa.

Because of this relationship, calcium isotopic measurements of urine or blood may be useful in the early detection of metabolic bone diseases like osteoporosis. A similar system exists in seawater, where 44Ca/40Ca tends to rise when the rate of removal of Ca2+ by mineral precipitation exceeds the input of new calcium into the ocean. In 1997 Skulan and DePaolo presented the first evidence of change in seawater 44Ca/40Ca over geologic time, along with a theoretical explanation of these changes. More recent papers have confirmed this observation, demonstrating that seawater Ca2+ concentration is not constant, and that the ocean is never in a "steady state" with respect to calcium input and output. This has important climatological implications, as the marine calcium cycle is closely tied to the carbon cycle.

Many calcium compounds are used in food, as pharmaceuticals, and in medicine, among others. For example, calcium and phosphorus are supplemented in foods through the addition of calcium lactate, calcium diphosphate, and tricalcium phosphate. The last is also used as a polishing agent in toothpaste and in antacids. Calcium lactobionate is a white powder that is used as a suspending agent for pharmaceuticals. In baking, calcium monophosphate is used as a leavening agent. Calcium sulfite is used as a bleach in papermaking and as a disinfectant, calcium silicate is used as a reinforcing agent in rubber, and calcium acetate is a component of liming rosin and is used to make metallic soaps and synthetic resins.

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