Science, patience and luck


From the beginning of time, if someone suffered an injury (almost any injury that broke the skin), there was a possibility that they might die. There was a real possibility that, if they didn’t die from the actual injury, they might die from an infection.

At that time, scientists and physicians had no idea what caused infections or how they were spread. They only knew the results of an infectious process could be redness, swelling, puss, drainage, gangrene, the loss of the limb and the possible loss of life.

In 1847, a Hungarian doctor, an obstetrician named Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss, made a presentation at a medical meeting in Europe and told the attending physicians that many lives could be saved if they committed to both memory, and to practice, three simple words … “Wash your hands.”

Twenty years later, a Scottish surgeon named Dr. Joseph Lister started to practice rigorous hand-washing before every surgical procedure. He noticed that, with hand-washing, the infection rates amongst his patients dropped dramatically.

He tied these results to the work of Louis Pasteur, who is credited with discovering “germ theory.” Pasteur theorized, and later proved, that organisms, too small to be seen, could enter the body and cause an infection that could result in death.

If the names Lister and Pasteur sound familiar, you may be thinking about Listerine and Pasteurization. Both are named in honor of the scientists who pioneered the elimination of germs. The most common tag line for the mouthwash Listerine is, “Kills germs that cause bad breath.” The word “Pasteurized” was commonly found on containers of milk to let the consumer know that the milk was free of harmful organisms.

One-hundred-and-fifty years later, we are again being reminded of the importance of proper hand-washing. Germs and viruses may change, or mutate, over time. The vaccine needed to treat the organism may also need to be modified, but vigorous hand-washing is still vital to help prevent the spread of germs.

At the time of those early discoveries, scientists did not know how to kill the organisms that caused infection, but they were discovering ways of slowing the spread. They needed a way to kill the bacteria.

Nearly 100 years ago, in 1928, a story unfolded about a bacteriologist named Alexander Fleming. According to historians, Fleming was working in his laboratory to find a way of stopping and killing bacteria.

Fleming left for a few weeks to take some vacation time in Scotland. When he returned to his lab, he looked at some petri dishes that he had left. He had been using the dishes to grow Staphylococcus bacteria, but there was now mold growing on many of the dishes, and around each area of mold was now a clear area that was completely free of Staphylococcus.

He later proved that the mold killed the bacteria. Fleming is quoted as saying, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

With other experiments and collaboration with other scientists, penicillin was developed. Certainly, people still died from infection, but those deaths became more and more rare. Penicillin came about as the result of much research, but the mold that Dr. Fleming found growing in his lab experiment on that amazing day can be considered either a great blessing or incredible luck.

Over the centuries, smallpox claimed hundreds of millions of lives. In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner developed a vaccination for smallpox, but it took nearly 200 years before the disease was controlled.

In 1980 the World Health Organization declared that smallpox was eradicated. That disease has left many scars. I have a picture of my grandfather, Harry Bridges, showing him standing at a window. The caption of the picture states that Papaw Bridges was in quarantine due to smallpox. For the rest of his life, his face carried the scars of his battle with that horrid disease.

In the year I was born, 1950, my parents and parents throughout the world, lived in fear that their children might develop polio. There was a horrible, deadly polio epidemic in the 1940s and ‘50s. At the peak of the polio epidemic, each year over half a million people died or were paralyzed.

The iron lung was developed during that period of time to help keep people alive. The patient would be placed inside the large iron lung with only their head sticking out. A large collar was used to make the apparatus airtight. Large billows would pump air are in and out of the chamber causing air to move in and out of the patient’s lungs. Many professionals consider this to be the birth of Respiratory Therapy.

Dr. Jonas Salk, a physician specializing in research, worked to develop a cure for polio. In 1955, he announced to the world that a vaccine had been perfected. At the time it was considered a medical miracle. It still is. Due to Salk’s work millions of lives were saved from death and the crippling effects of the disease.

Again, we are struggling with a worldwide epidemic – COVID-19. Thousands of physicians and scientists are working to find a cure. We can quarantine. We can socially isolate. Nothing is going to stop this disease until science discovers a cure – a vaccine that will protect us from the virus.

Until a cure is discovered, we will revert to isolation and social distancing. We will wear masks and scrub our hands to protect ourselves and others. In the long run, we will defeat COVID-19, but until then, we need to prevent the spread of this horrible virus.

Stay strong. Stay safe. Try to be patient. Science will find a cure.

Also… pray for some luck.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.


By Randy Riley

Contributing columnist

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