Main content

Testing Times in the Advancement of Science - 11 June 1999

An old lady has just died in Connecticut, at the age of 90, who was on the point of death 57 years ago.

There came a day when her temperature soared to an appalling 107º. She was suffering from an acute infection from the deadly bacterium streptococcus - a very serious illness in those days. The doctors watched her slide into a coma.

Everything had been tried - blood transfusions, surgery, even the new, greatly-touted, sulphur drugs. And then one doctor remembered hearing of an unknown drug that had been tried on a few humans and lots of mice with uniformly disappointing results.

There was only a minute amount of the drug available in a laboratory down across the Hudson River in New Jersey but it was sent as quickly as possible. It had never worked on humans. The woman was near death anyway and it was injected into her.

Within 24 hours her temperature had plummeted and in a few days the doomed woman was eating a hearty meal.

This - the first human success - was plainly an historic moment in the history of medicine. The remark of a wise old doctor long ago - "There is no such thing as a miracle drug" - had been defied.

So what was this unique drug? It was compounded from a mouldy object left out in the air in an English lab which a shrewd Scotsman suspected might be used to treat sick people.

Well the rosy-cheeked young woman recovered, had her photograph taken with him - one Alexander Fleming. The drug, of course, was penicillin - the father, grandfather, of generations of antibiotics.

I think Dr Fleming must have been as excited and relieved as she was to see his picture in the papers because it had been 14 years since he spotted that mouldy specimen and only after another 12 years did the medical profession take it seriously enough to start having it manufactured and tried out on humans.

Nothing much came of the early experiments. By March 1942, the date of the young woman's salvation, the United States had been in the Second World War only three months. I don't recall penicillin's being in general use during the War but when it was over an American pharmaceutical firm took the risk of going into wholesale production. And the rest is happy history.

Until, that is, the day we discovered some of the more ferocious bacteria were developing strains resistant to penicillin and later to other antibiotics.

But penicillin was so successful everywhere it was used that the public didn't have time to register its usual instinctive suspicion of any drug that worked by injection. Not like the first, the most famous vaccine for the contagious disease smallpox.

I remember when I was a boy the tremendous uproar among parents who had never heard anything sillier than the idea that by receiving a very small dose of a disease you could prevent the thing itself. And George Bernard Shaw didn't help much by publishing an inflammatory essay maintaining, on no evidence whatsoever, that more thousands of children died from vaccination than from smallpox itself.

I bring this up because we now hear of a near-hysterical reaction in parts of the United Kingdom at the mention of two letters of the alphabet.

An American representative of a very large American firm arrived in London a week or two ago and when somebody asked him who did he work for he innocently and truly replied: "GM." His questioner visibly winced and backed away as if the man had said he was a leper.

In this country GM means General Motors - a nice fat package of whose shares millions of Americans think of as the ultimate American dream.

The man had never heard of 'genetic manipulation' or rather it had been so long ago since the phrase and the procedure first came to his attention. For several years, certainly, the shelves of the supermarkets have been packed with genetically-treated foods.

Perhaps the American reflex to believe that anything new is a step forward explains why there's never been here, as yet, any popular superstition against GM. One thing is for certain, the National Disease Centre and genetic experts have made clear there is no scientific evidence that GM is harmful to humans.

I suppose the most famous attack of popular suspicion about the manipulation of an everyday food came in the first decade of this century when a German bacteriologist, Robert Koch, made the important discovery that the disease most rampant among people in their twenties especially - tuberculosis, what we call consumption - could be picked up from drinking milk.

In other words in his words he'd isolated the tubercle bacillus and now he announced in London - there's an irony there as you'll see - that one kind of tuberculosis in cows could be passed on to humans by drinking cows milk. Koch got the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

He'd no sooner given his London lecture than the surgeon general of the United States, enforcing a new law, ordered the health authorities throughout the then 48 states to offer all farmers a choice. They could have their herds tuberculin tested or the milk would have to be pasteurised.

Within something like four years, by 1913, this regulation had been obeyed in all of the 3,000-odd counties of the United States. All except Sonoma County, famous today as one of the two most prominent California wine-growing counties. The farmers there mounted a revolt. There was something fishy about tampering with the natural fluid.

Their doubts, their suspicions were echoed and cheered and amplified by the English farmers, and even the British authorities were sceptical and there was no movement to start tampering for at least another dozen years. In 1935 I was running a radio documentary show over the BBC and it was called the American Half Hour. It's just possible that a listener with one foot in the grave might recall it and wave his crutches at me. Saluté.

I invited the leading American epidemiologist - roughly, public health expert - to record a talk aimed at a British audience. He was a great friend of Sir George Newman who was then the leading British epidemiologist and asked Newman if he would approve of the talk which would frankly scold the British for its attitude towards pasteurisation?

Sir George, himself a disappointed missionary in the cause, was enthusiastic and said that Dr Emerson should speak his mind. He did so.

I can hear him now. He was a tall, austere New England type with a quiet beautiful voice. He said: "It is disheartening to those of us who have admired England as historically the pioneer in the advancement of public health to note the long delay in the pasteurising of milk in the country outside London."

He spoke, though he did not know it, ominous words. Four years later - the weekend that the British declared war on Nazi Germany - Londoners saw in a day and a night the mass evacuation of its small children. Just about the only effectively-organised war manoeuvre the Chamberlain government was capable of.

That was the beginning of September 1939. In the spring of 1940, before Hitler's May invasion of the Lowlands and France, there was an alarming epidemic of secondary tuberculosis in joints, skin, neck glands of small children. They were the young Londoners who had been exposed to raw milk - untested, unpasteurised - for the first time in their lives.

I don't know how severe or widespread was the epidemic but the American Dr Emerson had word of it from his opposite numbers in London. Otherwise, I believe the story was officially as tightly guarded a secret as - what was it called, Ultra? - anyway the device at Bletchley that broke the German's code.

The last quaint, poignant item in this odd chronicle takes us back to a year or two before the Second War and has me arriving in Baltimore, Maryland, as the guest of my oldest college friend who was now a practising doctor at what, I suppose, is the most famous of American hospitals - Johns Hopkins.

My friend had asked me if I could bear to appear before a class of young doctors at the end of their internship whom he was teaching.

What, you're panting to know, did I have to exhibit?

Well I had during my year at Yale showed my friend a photograph of myself, aged four - and I beg you to take it like a man when I tell you that I had a head of rollicking golden curls and a new white frock - in England at that time no boy under the age of, say, six wore trousers however short.

But it wasn't the frock that my friend was interested in. He was fascinated by a very conspicuous round lump growing on the right side of my neck the size of a golf ball - of the old, smaller, English golf ball that is. I told him I'd had another one at the age of two and they'd both been removed.

My parents were told, as all parents were told, that I had had "swollen glands". Since in those days English children, unlike American children, did not have in high school a compulsory course in biology nobody asks: "Swollen from what?" The answer was TB, secondary tuberculosis, just like those Cockney evacuees.

What my friend saw in 1933 was a scar, two scars. He couldn't believe it. So he had me go down to Baltimore and parade up and down the aisles of a lecture theatre at Johns Hopkins and exhibit the scars on a human neck of bovine tuberculosis. Those students were too old, in their late twenties, ever to have seen anything like it.

You may ask what was the main objection of the farmers of England and of Sonoma County, California? They said it 'took the good out of the milk'.

Maybe. It also took out the tuberculosis.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.