The early twentieth century was a period of frenetic drug development, a seemingly endless series of pharmaceutical and medical discoveries: antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, chemotherapeutics to battle cancers, and barbiturates to tranquilize anxieties, among many others. A huge number of these revolutionary medical treatments were discovered in the first half of the 1950s, an unprecedented era of advances in chemistry yielding a pharmacopoeia that would transform disease and the practice of medicine.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous characters in English literature, revered by fans of mystery from Victorian London to the present day, where he is still celebrated for his keen eye, wealth of knowledge, and aptitude for deductive reasoning. Indeed, Holmes has grown in status from a protagonist in a magazine serial to a genuine pop culture icon; his adventures with Dr. Watson have been featured in fifty-odd short stories and four novels and over 220 films and television shows since his creation by the Scottish physician, ship’s surgeon, and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1).
Just thirty-odd years ago, a HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. Advances in pharmaceuticals and in our understanding of the mechanisms of HIV infection mean that today it is a manageable, chronic disease on par with diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. People with HIV are living longer, and a graph recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that in the United States the average age at death from HIV infection has dramatically increased since 1987. (1)
The Pacific broad tapeworm thrives in the guts of the sea lions that frolic in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, has been identified in the preserved poop of Peruvians mummified some five millennia ago, and is now making its way to seafood-loving Europeans through the briny conduits of the world-wide commercial fish trade.
Three scientists that developed treatments for debilitating parasitic infections were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine today for their ground-breaking advancements in tropical medicine.
Infectious diseases have long been the companions of war and natural disaster. For those that barely escaped death in the calamities of antiquity, walking away with what appeared to be a light injury, the agony of a gangrenous wound or convulsive, back-breaking muscle spasms would deal an impending final blow. For centuries, a dreaded complication from an innocent blister or a bullet wound was the untreatable and catastrophic tetanus, caused by Clostridium tetani.
It is common knowledge that the discovery of penicillin in the laboratory of Alexander Fleming radically changed the world of medicine and public health, allowing us to treat and cure once intractable and deadly bacterial infections. Less well-known is the winding road from discovery, past numerous roadblocks including production limitations and the second World War, to widespread use. A decade and a half of limited access to the world’s first antibiotic came to an end in 1943, when a prolifically moldy cantaloupe was purchased from a grocery store in Peoria, Illinois. We would double down in our battle against infectious diseases less than a decade later, when two female scientists inspired by the humble discovery of penicillin would identify the first known antifungal agent in the mucky soil of a Virginia dairy farm.
Advancements in the medical sciences follow a well-trod path: observation of a problem, reasoned hypothesis and experimentation, and implementation of a solution. This course is governed by logic and, occasionally, reinforced by unorthodox thinking with the ultimate goal of improving the viability of man. An exception to this rule is the invention of the rubber glove. One of the most important breakthroughs in the practice of medicine was born not of careful problem-solving and the scientific process, but of a romantic gesture, a clinical schoolboy’s crush, an event which one observer described as “Venus [coming] to the aid of Aesculapius.”
Smallpox has haunted man for almost as long as we have been walking this earth. The variola virus that causes the deadly pox had been known to liquidate entire communities, towns, and cities since antiquity, stalking along trade routes and capitalizing upon human behavior and patterns of movement. Egyptian mummies unearthed from their tombs bear the pocked faces of fortunate survivors; Chinese emperors, Indian peasants, Russian Tzars, and Australian Aborigines – around the world, millions succumbed to virus in the centuries before the discovery of an effective vaccine.
The mother gazes at her naked, lethargic infant, wan with a pustular red rash dotting his chest. She’s dressed in the fashion of the day: a high-necked black blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves, a heavy full-length skirt, a formless red feather jutting from her hat. She holds a white handkerchief to her distorted scarlet face, one arm hanging limply at her side, seemingly in despair over the lamentable circumstances that have brought her to this bare waiting room.