Now are dark days in the garden. Much of North America is under snow cover and even in south Florida and the Pacific and desert southwest, regions that effectively have 12-month growing seasons, with all the cold and rain, plant growth has virtually ground to a halt—it’s winter.
Winter’s hard on animals too. The news is full of the hardships that people endure during winter. To begin with, there’s the cold itself. There are blizzards; the streets remain unplowed, and in California, there are houses taken by mudslides. In winter, there’s more illness—colds and flu, “the blues”, and even dry skin and dry nasal membranes. The list goes on and on. But, in terms of illness (and almost all else, for that matter), we forget how easy we have it compared with our ancestors.
Health care in the first half of the 19th century (and before) consisted of such practices as bleeding and leeching, which were liberally used, and all manner of foul tasting and often poisonous potions. Anything with a bad taste and that caused relatively immediate vomiting, sweating, or purging of the lower gastrointestinal tract would almost certainly be found in a doctor’s bag. An example is calomel (mercuric chloride), which was taken orally for everything from stomachache to mental problems to syphilis. It is extremely toxic, and taken in large doses, will cause significant nervous system damage. If calomel were spilled in a college chemistry laboratory today, a Hazmat team would probably be called in for cleanup. You can imagine that after a dosing with calomel, whatever had initially ailed you would have either killed you or resolved itself.
Consider the “1850 Mortality Schedule” for Tippecanoe County, Indiana. What you see is that people did not live long. Many in the list are young children, and much of the mortality is caused by diseases that to us seem far away and long ago—cholera, typhus, small pox, malaria. These sorts of statistics are widely available for other regions too. Indiana became a state in 1816, and by the mid-19th century, it was a representative part of the rapidly expanding heartland; it was largely rural and relatively primitive, but it was not uniquely disease ridden and conditions were pretty much the same in the cities as in the country, there and in the East.
In those days, there were many ideas of what caused disease but almost all of them were wrong. “Miasma” or bad air was thought to cause all sorts of illnesses. A general theory of disease was that the body was somehow out of kilter and must be “shocked” to return to health. We now know that many of the diseases that have plagued humans throughout our existence are caused by microorganisms. In the early part of the19th century, though, there was essentially no awareness of microorganisms themselves, let alone their role in disease. Nor was there an appreciation for the relationship between sanitation and disease. This was true even among physicians, who might or might not have had any formal training.
But this ignorance was rapidly dissipating. In the 1860s in France, Louis Pasteur demonstrated definitively that contamination was caused by air-born microorganisms and that the spoilage of food could be prevented by heating (“pasteurized”). Pasteur was also instrumental in the evolving knowledge and development of vaccines against such diseases as rabies. At about the same time in England, Joseph Lister developed the concept of antisepsis and applied antiseptic techniques to surgery with what at the time must have seemed to be an uncommonly low incidence of post-surgical infection. Somewhat later, Robert Koch in Germany isolated Bacillus anthracis (1877), Mycobacterium tuberculosis (1882), and the Vibrio cholerae (1883) and showed that these bacteria caused anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera, respectively. The detection of a disease-causing agent smaller than a bacterium (a virus) occurred shortly before the end of the 19th century and launched the new field of virology.
Not all disease is caused by microorganisms of course, but this, the “germ theory of disease”, is the foundation of modern medicine. And it was clear at the beginning of the 20th century that a next great advance in medicine would be discovering and developing agents to kill or inhibit microorganisms—chemotherapy. The most successful of these has been the antibiotics, and the first and most familiar antibiotic is penicillin.
Penicillin is a natural compound produced by a common fungus (Penicillium spp.) that routinely contaminates fruit and appears as a blue-green fuzzy mold. Luck or serendipity often plays a role in science, and such was the case in 1928 when the Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming found Penicillium contaminating his petri plates. He noted “zones of inhibition” surrounding the contaminating fungi where the bacteria he was culturing did not grow. Fleming surmised that it might be the fungus inhibiting the bacteria. Upon testing, he found that the fungus, even when an extract was diluted to 1 part in 800, inhibited growth of his staphylococci. Fleming had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in France during World War I and had seen many soldiers die of bacterial infection. The therapeutic potential of his extract was not lost on him. He named the inhibiting compound “penicillin”.
Basic research was begun with Fleming’s fungus and continued in England for the next 12 years. Procedures to isolate and concentrate penicillin were established, and animal studies demonstrated that penicillin was effective against an array of pathogenic bacteria. But efforts to grow the fungus in larger-scale batches with yields of penicillin that would be necessary for more extensive clinical trials or practical therapeutic use failed.
This changed when, in July 1941, two British scientists left England, deep at war with Germany, to collaborate with American scientists at the USDA Northern Laboratory at Peoria, IL, where there was expertise in fungal nutrition. Progress was made, and shortly before the USA entered World War II (8 Dec. 1941), yields of penicillin made by Fleming’s fungal strain had been increased by 10 fold. It was another serendipitous event that brought about this increase, the addition of a novel component, unknown in England but quite familiar to the Peoria scientists, to the fungal growth medium—“corn steep liquor”, a high nitrogen byproduct of the wet corn-milling process.
At the same time that different growth components and growing conditions were being investigated, new strains of the fungus were being tested. A discarded cantaloupe yielded a strain that proved to be a superior penicillin producer. America, now at war, enlisted the help of pharmaceutical companies to optimize fungal growing conditions and improve penicillin yield, recovery, purification, and packaging procedures. Several companies including Lilly, Merck, Pfizer, and Squibb began scaling up efforts to this end.
By early 1944, penicillin production began to increase dramatically, and Pfizer opened the first commercial plant for large-scale penicillin production. Barely 1.5 years later, by mid-1945, when World War II ended, penicillin was commercially available under prescription and distributed through standard channels at affordable prices. It was the preferred treatment for infections such as bacterial pneumonia, streptococcal throat infections, scarlet fever, syphilis, diphtheria, bacterial meningitis, and septicemia.
In 1945, Fleming and two other British scientists, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases”. Penicillin changed the world. To appreciate its impact, imagine yourself in a crowded auditorium. Look left then look right—one of those two people would not be there were it not for penicillin. Where simple scrapes resulting in infections or strep throat routinely killed children (and adults), children are now sent off to school 12 hours after a dose of amoxicillin. Most bacterial infections today have little or no lasting importance in our lives.
Who grew the rotting cantaloupe from which the high-producing penicillin strain was isolated I don’t know. But it makes no difference if it was grown commercially or in a local Peoria garden. While perhaps you’re perusing seed catalogues and maybe sitting by a fire, consider what miracles have come from gardens and enjoy the winter.