The Pandemic Issue

mild disease was produced but immunity was conferred against the dangerous one. The first disease treated in this way was the deadly anthrax that ravaged herds of domestic animals. Similar work was pursued even more successfully by the German bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843–1910). Antitoxins de- signed to neutralize bacterial poisons were also developed. Meanwhile, the English surgeon Joseph Lister (1827–1912), the son of the inventor of the achromatic microscope, had followed up Semmelweiss’s work. Once he learned of Pasteur’s research he had a convincing rationale as excuse and began to insist that, before operating, surgeons wash their hands in solutions of chemicals known to kill bacteria. From 1867 on, the practice of “antiseptic surgery” spread quickly. The germ theory also sped the adoption of rational preven- tive measures—personal hygiene, such as washing and bathing; careful disposal of wastes; the guarding of the cleanliness of food and water. Leaders in this were the German scientist Max Joseph von Pettenkofer (1818–1901) and Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902). They themselves did not accept the germ theory of disease but their recommendations would not have been followed as readily were it not that others did. In addition, it was discovered that diseases such as yellow fever and malaria were transmitted by mosquitoes, typhus fever by lice, Rocky Mountain spotted fever by ticks, bubonic plague by fleas and so on. Measures against these small germ-transferring organ- isms acted to reduce the incidence of the diseases. Men such as the Americans Walter Reed (1851–1902) and Howard Taylor Ricketts (1871–1910) and the Frenchman Charles J. Nicolle (1866–1936) were involved in such discoveries. The German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915) pio- neered the use of specific chemicals that would kill particular bac- teria without killing the human being in which it existed. His most successful discovery came in 1910, when he found an arsenic com- pound that was active against the bacterium that causes syphilis. This sort of work culminated in the discovery of the anti- bacterial effect of sulfanilamide and related compounds, beginning with the work of the German biochemist Gerhard Domagk (1895– 1964) in 1935 and of antibiotics, beginning with the work of the French-American microbiologist René Jules Dubos (1901–[1982]) in 1939.


Isaac Asimov on the History of Infectious Disease — And How Humanity Learned To Fight Back


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