Part 1 can be found here.
Waging War On Germs
After some years it was discovered that there was no need to kill germs in the operating theatre unless someone took them there. By being perfectly clean, and boiling everything used, the wounds would still heal up all right without spraying the carbolic all over the place. This was called aseptic surgery and is the method still used today, when operations are not only painless, but free of infection too, and people are no longer frightened to go to hospitals.
But while it was perfectly possible and sensible to keep germs out of a hospital operating theatre, it just was not possible to keep them all out of ordinary rooms, and trains and cinemas, so people went on catching things. It should be possible to keep them out of our food and water, but that still isn’t always done, and people did and do catch things from what they eat and drink.
Actually, germ-free water was one of the first things tackled. Pure water stopped the epidemics of cholera which occurred in this country up to a hundred years ago. Apart from occasional accidents, it has stopped epidemics of typhoid fever, because the germs of cholera and typhoid are mostly carried in water. But things were different in war-time, when thirsty soldiers would drink from any old stream or puddle, and in the South African War typhoid was so bad that far more soldiers died of it than from wounds.
It was then that Sir Almroth Wright asked himself: Can’t people in some way be made immune to these infectious diseases? He noticed that often if you had a disease once, you didn’t get it again, and assumed that the body manufactured some antidote during his illness, which stayed there afterwards. His idea was that if you took some disease germs and killed them, they would not be able to multiply, so couldn’t do much harm, but might still have the power to cause a person to form the antidote. In this way he made anti-typhoid vaccine, and it worked so well that, although it was a bit too late for the South African War, it cut down typhoid in the First World War to a negligible amount, and typhoid vaccine has been used by the Army ever since. All soldiers, as soon as they join up, are inoculated.
It was hoped at the time that the same method could be used to protect people against all infections, but it did not work out quite as easily as that, and various modified methods had to be discovered before we had our present inoculations against diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, rabies and so on. Even now we are still searching for effective vaccines against many diseases.
So the position at the outbreak of the First World War was that we could prevent infection of clean operations, kill germs in our water, disinfect things which were covered with germs, inoculate people against typhoid; but once the germs had got into people, we were still rather helpless, because the sort of anti-septics we used, like carbolic, were just as poisonous to people as they were to the germs, so it was no use giving them as medicine.
The Miracle Of A Chance Discovery
It was then that doctors began to dream of some wonderful substance which people might be able to take which would kill the germs without injuring the patients. There was an inkling that this might be possible, because, for instance, quinine would kill the malaria germs without killing the patient, but it was a long search. The marvelous thing was that it was not the men searching for drugs who found the answer, but men looking for new synthetic dyes. Many dyes are antiseptics, that is they will kill germs, but it was found that some of them would not only kill germs but were fairly harmless to us.
Trypan Blue was developed in this way as a cure for African Sleeping Sickness, and later on it was found that a red dye called prontosil would kill blood-poisoning germs, and that a white powder obtained from this red stuff, which wasn’t a dye at all, was even better. It was called sulphanilamide and was the first of the many “sulpha” drugs which are now used by doctors in all sorts of infections.
The discovery of penicillin was another marvel in the fight against the germ. In every bacteriological laboratory, germs are grown in test tubes or in little circular glass dishes, on some sort of jelly mixture on which they thrive. The bacteriologist wants to study one kind, and does his best to see that only one kind of germ gets into each dish. But germs, especially moulds, float about in the air, and every time the cover is taken off a sish, there is a risk of an outsider getting in and spoiling the experiment.
This happened one day to Sir Alexander Fleming, and he was on the point of throwing the spoiled dish away, when he noticed that the mould which had got in was killing off the germs in the dish. From that one accidental speck of mould has been grown and made all the tons of penicillin since used all over the world.
But, of course, germs aren’t the only troubles doctors have to cope with. A good deal of their time is taken up with accidents and injuries resulting in broken bones. When a bone is broken, the limb goes a funny shape and hurts a lot. Unless it is handled very, very gently, the broken ends will move about and grate on each other. In the old days, the doctor had to judge from the change in shape and so on, what bone was broken, how badly, and how much it needed setting into place. How often he must have longed to be able to look inside and see just what he had to deal with. This seemed a very vain wish indeed, till that very marvel happened by the discovery of X-rays.