Epidemics do not simply appear out of nowhere. They can simmer for months, isolated within a small segment of a population, escaping the notice of the public health community before boiling over into the larger community, triggering the identification of a spreading contagion. Too often, those individuals who recognize a nascent threat of outbreak and sound the alarm do not receive the public recognition they deserve.
There’s nothing quite like syphilis. The sexually transmitted bug that sullied Christopher Columbus’ journey either to the New World or his return back to the Old – we’re still debating this grand chicken-or-egg epidemiological mystery – has deranged the minds of dictators and kings, was once a leading cause of committed hospitalizations to the psych ward, and even sparked fashion trends among members of the European royal courts who sought to cloak its debilitating, tell-tale symptoms (1).
One of the most iconic works in American art – the painting “Christina’s World” – currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a prized piece of Americana and one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. In his artwork, Andrew Wyeth, a master of American realism, honors a dear friend, a woman who is today both an icon and a true medical mystery.
Conjunctivitis, that infamous, sticky-itchy-oozy infection of the eye, can strike anywhere and anyone. For the most part, however, pink eye sticks to its preferred domain, afflicting youthful targets in schoolyard haunts where the infection spreads from dirty little hand to once-clean little eye with the tenacity and enthusiasm of wildfire. Though wholly reliant on direct inoculation to the eyeball, it is easily transmitted, whether by the sticky digits of children unfamiliar with good hygiene or via errant eye gunk inadvertently smeared on a communal surface.
They are considered the most noble creature to grace Earth. They have massive brains, complex forms of communication, the ingenuity for tool use, and the capacity to express emotions, including grief and empathy. Yet, as impressive as they are in size and majesty, elephants can still be felled by the most human of ailments: tuberculosis.
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).
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.
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.”