March 26, 1953 Polio

” Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn’t returned.” – David Oshinsky

When I was little a boy I once asked my mother. What is polio?  At the time I didn’t understand the look that crossed her face but I’ve thought about it, often.  What I saw that day was the realization that the nightmare which had terrorized her generation, was something her children would never have to fear.

Recall the terrors of the AIDS virus. Now, instead of the well understood vectors by which that virus is transmitted, imagine all the terrifying finality of that disease combined with the randomness, of the common cold. Like the Covid-19 nightmare of the last two years polio too was ever-present, but with far more lasting results.

The first major polio epidemic in the United States appeared in Vermont, when 132 cases were diagnosed in 1894. A larger outbreak killed 6,000 New York City residents in 1916, with over 27,000 cases diagnosed.

Wheelchair
Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered polio at the age of 39

Poliomyelitis tended to come out in the summer, disproportionately effecting children and young adults. 58,000 cases were reported in the 1952 epidemic alone, 3,145 of them died and another 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis.

A President of the United States suffered from polio, as a younger man. The press did their best to treat the matter with delicacy, but the disease left him able to stand only with great pain and difficulty, dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Others were doomed to 800-pound monstrosities called “iron lungs”, seven-foot long, “negative pressure ventilators” which reproduced the movements of breathing.  The Smithsonian Institution estimated that in 1959 some 1,200 Americans were dependent on iron lungs.  

Iron Lung

Today, modern “biphasic” ventilators (alternating negative/positive pressure) are worn like the cuirass of the conquistadors, all but replacing the iron lung.  As of 2014, there were only ten individuals left, living their lives in one of the things.

A story of inspiration: Martha was 13 that day in 1948 when the family buried her brother, Gaston.   The boy had died of poliomyelitis, a plague which had terrorized, a generation.  She didn’t tell her parents that night when she went to bed, that her body ached. Mom and Dad already had enough to worry about.  Martha was a year in the hospital before coming home, in an iron lung. She would spend the next 61 years of her life paralyzed from the neck down, dependent on the 7-foott metal tube in which she lived, to breathe.  I can personally think of nothing worse and yet Martha made the best of it, going on to earn high honors in high school and college, entertaining guests at her home and even writing a book once voice to text, became a reality.  

“I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.” You may be interested in the following radio segment about the life, of Martha Mason.

NPR All Things Considered segment describing the life, of Martha Mason

Early efforts to develop a vaccine, proved fruitless.  One New York University study produced no immunity whatever, at the cost of nine dead children.  Other vaccine trials used “volunteers” from state mental institutions.

Jonas-Salk-2

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, the son of Jewish immigrants of Irish descent. Daniel and Dora (Press) Salk were not themselves formally educated, but the couple kept their kids focused on school.

Salk attended City College of New York and New York University School of Medicine, taking the road less traveled on graduation from Med School. Instead of becoming a practicing physician, Salk went into medical research.

Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947, the following year beginning a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became the March of Dimes. The grant was funded to determine the number of polio types, but Salk took it several steps further. He saw it as an opportunity to develop a vaccine.

Polio Trials

It’s not widely known that the American Revolution took place during a smallpox pandemic. George Washington himself was a proponent of vaccinating, which, as with rabies, was always done with live virus.

Live virus vaccination carries obvious risks. Dr. Salk was interested in the way the body developed antibodies to killed virus. On March 26, 1953, Dr. Salk announced the successful test of a vaccination, to prevent polio. He and his team completed lab trials in 1954, injected themselves and volunteers alike, with inert virus. Having experienced no ill effects, field trials began a short time later.

Field trials of Dr. Salk’s vaccine were some of the most extensive in history. 20,000 physicians and public health officials were involved in the trial, along with 64,000 school personnel, 220,000 volunteers, and over 1,800,000 school children.

polio

News of the vaccine’s success was announced on April 12, 1955. Jonas Salk was hailed as a miracle worker. David Oshinsky, history professor at New York University and author of Polio: An American Story, tells a story about that day.

“The public was horribly and understandably frightened by polio. There was no prevention and no cure. Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family. I grew up in this era. Each summer, polio would come like The Plague. Beaches and pools would close — because of the fear that the poliovirus was waterborne. Children had to stay away from crowds, so they often were banned from movie theaters, bowling alleys, and the like. My mother gave us all a ‘polio test’ each day: Could we touch our toes and put our chins to our chest? Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn’t returned.”

David Oshinsky

Jonas Salk consumed over seven years of his life on his goal. When broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him “who owns the patent on this vaccine”, Dr. Salk replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Salk

All those years, all that time, work and effort, and even in the end the man took no personal financial interest in the result. A mortal virus afflicted the children of his generation. One man was going to lift heaven and earth if he had to, to stop it.

In the late 1950s, Salk became interested in building his own research institute. He searched for a site for over a year, until meeting San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, himself a polio survivor. Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new UC campus then planned for San Diego. In June of 1960, the citizens of San Diego overwhelmingly voted “yes”, to donate the land for Salk’s dream. Construction began with initial funding from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, and completed in 1967.

poliovaccina

Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80. A memorial at the Institute bearing his name reads: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

By 1979, the disease was eradicated from the United States.  The worldwide effort to wipe out polio began in 1988, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  20 million volunteers from virtually every country in the world have vaccinated over 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $11 billion. Worldwide, the incidence of new polio cases decreased by 99%.  Today, polio remains endemic in northern Nigeria and the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So it is that those of us born after 1955 can live out our lives in blissful ignorance, having no idea of the terrors our parents endured before us.

March 16, 2006 RPG

Channing Moss, standing with his upper body out of the Humvee, felt something and smelled smoke.  He looked down to see it was himself.  His body was smoking.

Paktika Province is a wild and lawless region in the east of Afghanistan, a border crossroads with the west of Pakistan and home to a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda units.

An article from Time magazine describes the U.S. base: “The U.S. firebase looks like a Wild West cavalry fort, ringed with coils of razor wire. A U.S. flag ripples above the 3-ft.-thick mud walls, and in the watchtower a guard scans the expanse of forested ridges, rising to 9,000 ft., that mark the border. When there’s trouble, it usually comes from that direction.”

article-1392699-0C581BE600000578-294_634x435
Channing Moss, second from right

The morning of Thursday, March 16, 2006 dawned bright and clear as a force rode out from the 10th Mountain Division.  Their mission was to seek out a remote mountain village, and meet with village elders. They were twenty-four American soldiers in five Humvees and a handful of Afghan National troops, riding a pickup truck.

Paktika is a trackless wilderness of ragged hillsides and wadis, seasonal riverbeds flowing southwest from the mountains of Sar Hawza, to the north.  The land appears custom made for an ambush, with dangerous high spots in nearly every direction.

9A0AA69F-D000-4F20-BFA3-2A7E3B73EF60_cx0_cy19_cw0_mw1024_s_n_r1

Some four hours into the mission, gunfire broke out from above.   First small arms, then came the rocket-propelled grenades.  Twenty-three-year-old Private Channing Moss remembered, it sounded like rattling spoons.

RPGs were soon raining down.  The pickup exploded, killing two Afghan soldiers.  The rest scrambled to get out of the “kill zone” as three rocket propelled grenades struck Private Moss’ Humvee.  Staff Sergeant Eric Wynn, 33, felt one slice through his face.  Channing Moss, standing with his upper body out of the Humvee, felt something and smelled smoke.  He looked down to see it was himself.  His body was smoking.

article-1392699-0065C3F100000258-490_634x321
RPG ammunition, found on the outskirts of Basra

A rocket propelled grenade is exactly what it sounds like, a weapon roughly the size of a baseball bat, propelled at nearly the speed of a bullet.  Standing as he was, Channing Moss had taken one of these things in the hip, leaving nothing but the fins, sticking out of his body.  The weapon now inside of him was capable of turning everyone in the vehicle to a “pink mist”.

What happened next, is beyond belief. When every human instinct says “get the hell away from that thing” Moss had a whole team by his side, throughout the ordeal. Company medic Spc. Jared Angell, 23, working to stabilize that thing for transportation. Lieutenant Billy Mariani came over once the fighting had died down: “I grabbed his hand and I just said, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re gonna get you out of here.’” Badly wounded himself, Wynn literally held his own face together while reporting casualties over the radio, and holding Moss’ hand.

article-1392699-0C584A4E00000578-13_306x360
Private Channing Moss

The MEDEVAC crew arrived escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, they knew what they were dealing with. Army regulations say it’s too dangerous to carry such a human bomb. It could take out every man on the chopper and blow the bird out of the sky: four MEDEVAC crew members, and three wounded soldiers.

Pilot CW2 Jorge Correa spoke with his team: “I asked my crew, you know, ‘Are you guys comfortable with this?  Because I wasn’t gonna put my crew in jeopardy if they weren’t comfortable with it.”  Co-pilot Jeremy Smith recalled the moment:  “We all said, ‘Yeah, let’s get him on board and let’s get outta here.’”

It was the same thing, back at the aid station.  Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown.  Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station.  Three surgical staff.  All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.

article-1392699-0C581BFB00000578-84_634x437

Channing Moss was well beyond the “golden hour” with expectations of survival, growing dim.  The man’s heart actually stopped and the surgeons administered epinephrine, knowing that physical heart massage could detonate the ordnance still inside the man’s body.

Despite massive injury to his torso Private Moss, survived.  There would be four more surgeries back at Walter Reed and an endless hell of physical therapy as the man progressed from bed to wheel chair to crutches, to a cane.  Moss had a Purple Heart coming and then some but refused to receive it, until he could stand on his own two legs and walk to receive his medal.

article-1392699-0C581BEF00000578-877_634x446
Channing Moss and his wife Lorena, reunited with Majors Oh and Kirk

Explosives expert Dan Brown spoke for the whole team, I think, in explaining what they had done:  “He was American, he was a solider, he was a brother and he was one of us. And there was nothing gonna stop us from doing what we knew what we had to do … We knew we did right. In that screwed up world we did something right.

A Trivial Matter:

While rare, unexploded ordnance has been lodged inside of living human bodies on no fewer than thirty six occasions between WW2 and the modern era, requiring surgical removal.  All but four, survived.

November 3, 1752 Quacks

As for the man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach, he worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson later described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.”

From Brahms to Beethoven, Mendelssohn to Mozart, German composers have formed the core and the nucleus, of western music. And not just the classical stuff. Frankfurt-born Hans Zimmer has composed scores for over 150 different films including The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, and the Dark Knight trilogy. The German-born Persian composer Ramin Djawadi may not be a household name but we know his scores for the 2008 Marvel film Iron Man and season 7 of Game of Thrones, both nominated, for Grammy Awards. The German-American singer/songwriter Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. may not be a household name but his stage name certainly is. We remember him, as John Denver.

1685 was a good year for German composers, George Frideric Händel born on February 23 in Halle and Johann Sebastian Bach barely a month later, in Eisenbach. Bach’s father Johann Ambrosius was a 7th generation musician and encouraged the boy, to learn the violin. Not so Händel ‘s father. A respected barber-surgeon aged 63 at the time of Händel’s birth to his second wife Dorothea, Georg expected his son to study civil law.

Little George found means to smuggle a clavichord into an attic room where he would steal away to practice, while his parents slept.

The boy was yet to turn ten when he accompanied his father to the court of the Duke of Johann, Adolf I. Somehow, George found himself on the organ stool and, when he began to play, Georg could only wonder where THAT came from. The Duke was so impressed he persuaded his father to allow him to study music and the rest, is history.

J.S. Bach was only ten when he lost both of his parents, only eight months apart. It was an uncle, Johann Christoph, who introduced the boy to the organ. Like Händel , Bach went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era.

From 1727 to this day the anthem Zadok the Priest is performed at coronation ceremonies, of British royalty. The magnificent strains of George Frideric Händel’s “Messiah” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are favorites, of the Christmas season.  And yet there is another, darker connection between the two men. While the two never met both composers were blinded, by the same quack physician.

In the Dutch language a kwakzalver is a seller of cures, nostrums and potions of dubious origin, and little efficacy.   In 1665 an outbreak of Bubonic Plague ravaged London causing doctors to flee by the score leaving quacksalvers and charlatans to pray on the vulnerable, and the fearful.

So bad was it Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, penned the following: 

“Infallible preventive pills against the plague.” “Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.” “Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.” “Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.” “Anti-pestilential pills.” “Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.” “An universal remedy for the plague.” “The only true plague water.” “The royal antidote against all kinds of infection”;—and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

Daniel Defoe

British surgeon Dale Ingram remarked: “Every one [of the quacks in London] was at liberty to prescribe what nostrum he pleased, and there was scarce a street in which some antidote was not sold, under some pompous title.”

Clark Stanley claimed to have studied with native Hopi shaman and learned the medicinal benefits, of snake oil. The original snake oil salesman made a tidy sum until the US Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906. In 1917, investigators discovered that Stanley’s elixir was nothing but ordinary mineral oil and beef fat flavored with red pepper, and turpentine. William Bailey’s RadiThor, a nostrum for the cure of erectile dysfunction was basically radium, dissolved in water. Ebenezer Byers, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist who won the 1906 US Amateur golf tournament was so enamored of the stuff he drank two to three bottles, every day. The federal government shut RadiThor down in 1932 but not before Byers met a horrible end, his skeleton destroyed and much of his skull eaten away, his jawless body buried, in a lead lined coffin. In 1822, British businessman James Morrison cured his own “inexpressible suffering” with a home made vegetable pill said to cure, whatever ails you. Morrison’s “vegetable universal medicines” were roundly criticized by the medical establishment of the time, but that didn’t seem to hurt business. In 1836 one of Morrison’s resellers was convicted of manslaughter when the post-mortem of one unfortunate revealed a belly full of Morrison’s pills, to be the cause of death.

Which brings us to John Taylor and no, I’m not talking about the founding member, of Duran Duran. The self-styled “Chevalier” (knight) John Taylor was an oculist, Royal Eye Surgeon to none other than Britain’s King George, II.

Flamboyant, egotistical and utterly without principle, Taylor would ride into town in a horse drawn carriage painted with images of eyes and the words qui dat videre dat vivere (giving sight is giving life), painted on the side. Victims err, I mean patients of this Baroque era ShamWow pitchman were instructed to leave the bandage on for seven days, plenty long enough for the good doctor to get paid, and leave town. When he wasn’t busy writing his two-volume autobiography “The Life and Extraordinary History of the Chevalier John Taylor”, Taylor would ride into town and deliver a speech on a street corner before performing surgery. On the street corner. In an age before anesthesia with little conception of bacteria the idea was to get in and out, as quickly as possible.

Bach was losing his sight when he underwent the first of two unsuccessful surgeries. After the second, the composer developed a painful post-operative eye infection. Unsurprisingly, a ‘cure’ of laxatives and bleeding did little to relieve the symptoms. Johann Sebastian Bach died of his infection, just a few months later.

Händel was suffering with cataracts when he met the good doctor. Taylor performed a “couching” of the lens on this day in 1752, the insertion of a sharp hook to dislodge the lens and push it down, to emit light. On those few occasions where the procedure succeeded the patient would wear enormous, thick glasses to compensate, for the rest of his life. The other 70 percent including Mr. Händel …went blind.

The man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.” Today the name of John Taylor is all but forgotten, while the works of Bach and Händel live on, after all these centuries.

There’s a reason they call this stuff…Classical.

August 12, 1865 The Shoulders of Giants

Today, the idea that microorganisms such as fungi, viruses and other pathogens cause infectious disease is common knowledge, but such ideas were held in disdain among scientists and doctors, well into the 19th century.

In the 12th century, French philosopher Bernard of Chartres talked about the concept of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. The idea is familiar to the reader of English as expressed by the mathematician and astronomer Isaac Newton, who observed that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

gooddoc
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Nowhere is there more truth to the old adage, than in the world of medicine. In 1841, the child who survived to celebrate a fifth birthday could look forward to a life of some 55 years. Today, a five-year-old can expect to live to eighty-two, fully half again that of the earlier date.

Yet, there are times when the giants who brought us here are unknown to us, as if they had never been. One such is Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, one of the earliest pioneers in anti-septic medicine.

Semmelweis  studied law at the University of Vienna in the fall of 1837, but switched to medicine the following year. He received his MD in 1844 and, failing to gain a clinical appointment in internal medicine, decided to specialize in obstetrics.

In the third century AD, the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon first described the “miasma” theory of illness, holding that infectious diseases such as cholera, chlamydia and the Black Death were caused by noxious clouds of “bad air”.  The theory is discredited today, but such ideas die hard.

miasma-theory

The germ theory of disease was first proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546 and expanded by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762. Single-cell organisms – bacteria – were known to exist in human dental plaque as early as 1683, yet their functions were imperfectly understood. Today, the idea that microorganisms such as fungi, viruses and other pathogens cause infectious disease is common knowledge, but such ideas were held in disdain among scientists and doctors, well into the 19th century.

InfectiousDisease16_9

In the mid-19th century, birthing centers were set up all over Europe, for the care of poor and underprivileged mothers and their illegitimate infants. Care was provided free of charge, in exchange for which young mothers agreed to become training subjects for doctors and midwives.

In 1846, Semmelweis was appointed assistant to Professor Johann Klein in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, a position similar to a “chief resident,” of today.

300px-AAKH-1784

At the time, Vienna General Hospital ran two such clinics, the 1st a “teaching hospital” for undergraduate medical students, the 2nd for student midwives.

Semmelweis quickly noticed that one in ten women and sometimes one in five, were dying in the First Clinic of postpartum infection known as “childbed fever”, compared with less than 4% that of the Second Clinic.

The difference was well known, even outside of the hospital. Expectant mothers were admitted on alternate days into the First or Second Clinic. Desperate women begged on their knees not to be admitted into the First, some preferring even to give birth in the streets, over delivery in that place. The disparity between the two clinics “made me so miserable”, Semmelweis said, “that life seemed worthless”.

He had to know why this was happening.

Puerperal Peritonitis 1912 MA

Childbed or “puerperal” fever was rare among these “street births”, and far more prevalent in the First Clinic, than the Second. Semmelweis carefully eliminated every difference between the two, even including religious practices. In the end, the only difference was the people who worked there.

The breakthrough came in 1847, following the death of Semmelweis’ friend and colleague, Dr. Jakob Kolletschka. Kolletschka was accidentally cut by a student’s scalpel, during a post-mortem examination. The doctor’s own autopsy showed a pathology very similar to those women, dying of childbed fever. Medical students were going from post-mortem examinations of the dead to obstetrical examinations of the living, without washing their hands.

Midwife students had no such contact with the dead. This had to be it. Some unknown “cadaverous material” had to be responsible for the difference.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

Semmelweis instituted a mandatory handwashing policy, using a chlorinated lime solution between autopsies and live patient examinations.

Mortality rates in the First Clinic dropped by 90 percent, to rates comparable with the Second. In April 1847, First Clinic mortality rates were 18.3% – nearly one in five. Hand washing was instituted in mid-May, and June rates dropped to 2.2%.  July was 1.2%. For two months, the rate actually stood at zero.

The European medical establishment celebrated the doctor’s findings. Semmelweis was feted as the Savior of Mothers, a giant of modern medicine. 

No, just kidding.  He wasn’t.

The imbecility of the response to Semmelweis’ findings is hard to get your head around and the doctor’s own personality, didn’t help.  The medical establishment took offense at the idea that they themselves were the cause of the mortality problem, and that the answer lay in personal hygiene.

Yearly_mortality_rates_1841-1846_two_clinics

Semmelweis himself was anything but tactful, publicly berating those who disagreed with his hypothesis and gaining powerful enemies.   For many, the doctor’s ideas were extreme and offensive, ignored or rejected and even ridiculed.  Are we not Gentlemen!?  Semmelweis was fired from his hospital position and harassed by the Vienna medical establishment, finally forced to move to Budapest.

Dr. Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical community, and began to write open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians.  He went so far as to denounce such people as “irresponsible murderers”, leading contemporaries and even his wife, to question his mental stability.

Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum on July 31, 1865, twenty-three years before Dr. Louis Pasteur opened his institute for the study of microbiology.

Semmelweis bust, University of Tehran

Barely two weeks later, August 12, 1865, British surgeon and scientist Dr. Joseph Lister performed the first anti-septic surgery, in medical history. Dr. Semmelweis died the following day at the age of 47, the victim of a blood infection resulting from a gangrenous wound sustained in a severe beating, by asylum guards.

April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

Sven Somme, tree
Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

download (61)

As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

U-864
German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

March 27, 1915 Typhoid Mary

“In time of war, soldiers, however sensible, care a great deal more on some occasions about slaking their thirst than about the danger of enteric fever. Better known as typhoid, the disease is often spread by drinking contaminated water”. – Winston Churchill

In 1841, US President William Henry Harrison died only 32 days into his only term, in office. The killer was a common culprit in Harrison’s day, one destined to end the life of Stephen A. Douglas of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, William “Willy” Lincoln (right), the 11-year-old son of President Abraham & First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, and Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, mother of President Theodore Roosevelt and grandmother on her father’s side, of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Historians believe Typhoid fever to be the causative agent behind the plague which killed the great statesman Pericles and a third the population of Athens, in 430BC. Typhoid killed as many as 6,000 settlers in the English colony at Jamestown and may have been responsible for eliminating the entire colony.

In 1880, German pathologist Karl Joseph Eberth first described the bacillus involved but, throughout the 19th century, Typhoid could be counted upon to kill more combatants, than any given war in which they had come, to fight.

There’s no polite way to say this. Typhoid is spread by fecal contamination. Between humans. Today, simple acts like flushing a toilet and washing one’s hands are parts of daily routine. In an age before modern plumbing and sewage, we’re talking about a plague sufficient to make the bogey man himself, quake with terror.

Salmonella enterica enterica serovar Typhi

Even now, sciencemag.org reports some ten to thirty million cases per year and about 200,000 deaths. Today, scientists across the African continent and Asia contend with the multi-drug resistant strain H58, but now we’re ahead of the story. In a century beginning with the Napoleonic wars and ending with the gilded age, the “germ theory” of disease we know so well rose only gradually to the fore, eclipsing the “miasma” theory so familiar to contemporaries, of the Black Death.

Like the Chinese coronavirus of another century, Typhoid symptoms range from excruciating death to nothing, whatsoever. Mary Mallon was one of the latter. Born in 1869 in the north of Ireland, Mary was almost certainly infected in utero as her mother was so tainted, at the time of birth.

Mary emigrated to the United States at age fifteen and lived for a time, with an aunt and uncle. She worked as a maid at first but it didn’t take long to realize…Mary Mallon could cook. Soon she was hiring on with wealthy families, as a personal chef.

In 1906, New York banker Charles Henry Warren arranged a treat, for his family. A summer rental seemed just the thing. Warren rented the summer home of George Thompson and his wife in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Naturally, Warren went looking for a cook. Mary Mallon accepted the job.

That August, one of the Warren daughters fell ill with Typhoid fever. Mrs. Warren was soon to follow and then two maids. In total, six of eleven people in the household came down with the disease. Fearing they wouldn’t be able to rent the place, Thompson hired investigators to find the cause.

That first group found nothing and Thompson hired George Soper, a civil engineer known even then as, the “epidemic fighter”. It was Soper who first hypothesized that Mary herself, might be the cause. Mallon had left the family three weeks earlier at this point. Soper examined Mallon’s employment history from 1900 to the present, and there it was. There were seven jobs during that time in which 22 people became ill. With Typhoid. One little girl died of the disease, shortly after Mary came to work for the family.

The civil engineer turned “private eye“ went looking for Mary herself. He found found her in March 1907, working for the family of Walter Bowen.  

Soper explained who he was and requested samples of Mary’s blood, urine and feces.  Mallon responded as might be expected, of a cornered wildcat.  She came at him with a shriek and a carving fork and put the man to flight, for his life.

Once again Soper tracked her down and showed up, where she lived. This time he brought help in the person of one Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler. And now there were two of them, fleeing for their lives.

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker was dispatched from the New York city health department but by now, Mallon wasn’t hearing a word of it. Next came Soper with five police officers, and an ambulance. Let the epidemic fighter describe what happened next.

“Now thoroughly convinced of her own persecution, “Mary was on the lookout and peered out, a long kitchen fork in her hand like a rapier. As she lunged at me with the fork, I stepped back, recoiled on the policeman and so confused matters that, by the time we got through the door, Mary had disappeared. ‘Disappear’ is too matter-of-fact a word; she had completely vanished”.

George Soper

There followed a five-hour cat & mouse before they found her, hiding in a closet. It took several of them to wrestle Mary to the ground. Soper himself sat on her, all the way to the hospital. He said it was like being in a cage, with an angry lion.

Mary was taken to Willard Parker hospital where stool samples demonstrated the presence of Typhoid. Under questioning she admitted to “almost never” washing her hands, a practice not uncommon, at that time. There followed a period of incarceration between 1907 and 1910 on North brother island on the East River, near the Bronx.

The press had a field day with the story. “Typhoid Mary” they called her.

“I never had typhoid in my life, and have always been healthy. Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?”

Mary Mallon

In that time, 120 of 163 samples tested positive. Mary herself couldn’t understand why she was being treated this way. She had broken no laws. She’d been taken by force and against her will. There was a nervous breakdown. Her own samples smuggled out with the help of a friend, tested negative. The time when she sued for her freedom. And lost. The courts didn’t want anything to do with it. Soper would visit from time to time and sometimes explained the importance of handwashing. She wasn’t buying any of it. It was all she could think of. Why…Would… They…DO THIS TO ME!?

In 1910, Mary was released to the mainland with an agreement t0 “take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection.” She promised not to accept work as a cook. Now here she was, working as a laundress, earning $20 a month. Without a home of her own, and always on the brink of destitution. She used to make $50 a month, as a cook.

She broke her word. Now it was “Marie Breshof” or “Mrs. Brown,” cooking for the restaurant on Broadway, or that hotel in Southampton. There was an inn in Huntington. A sanatorium in New Jersey. The cooking gigs were always short-term and always followed by Typhoid outbreaks.

Then came the job at Sloan Hospital for Women. 20 people fell ill with Typhoid. Two died. Even the other other servants were now calling the new cook, “Typhoid Mary”.

North Brother island

This time when they came for her, she didn’t resist. On this day in 1915, Mary Mallon was returned to quarantine on North Brother Island. She had a stroke there in 1932 and spent the last six years of her life, partly paralyzed. She contracted pneumonia and died there on Armistice Day, November 11, 1938. Nine people attended her funeral.

Over her lifetime, Typhoid Mary is believed to have sickened no fewer than fifty, three of whom, died. Some put her death toll, as high as fifty. In a nation of laws the civil liberties side of her story stands to this day as an historic, unmitigated, disaster.

Mary Mallon spent her last years alone in this small house on North Brother Island in the East River, near the Bronx

The history of Mary Mallon, declared “unclean” like a leper, may give us some moral lessons on how to protect the ill and how we can be protected from illness…By the time she died New York health officials had identified more than 400 other healthy carriers of Salmonella typhi, but no one else was forcibly confined or victimized as an “unwanted ill”.

Annals of Gastroenterology, 2013

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

2BAF80BC00000578-3211358-image-a-42_1440616862244
Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles. Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

May 14, 1796 Revolution in the midst of Pandemic

Had the program begun a year earlier, the US/Canadian map might look quite different, than it does today.

VACCINATION_06Childhood memories of standing in line. Smiling. Trusting. And then…the Gun. That sound. Whack! The scream.  That feeling of betrayal…being shuffled along. Next!

Ask anyone of a certain age and they can show you the scar, round or oblong, jagged around the edges and just a little lower than the surrounding skin.

Between 1958 and 1977, the World Health Organization conducted a great campaign, a global effort to rid the world of the great scourge, of smallpox.

Child_with_Smallpox_Bangladesh
Young girl afflicted with smallpox, Bangladesh, 1973

Today we face a worldwide pandemic of the COVID19 virus, calculated to produce a crude mortality rate of .28% and an Infection Fatality Rate (IFR), of 1.4%.  Hat Tip worldometers.info

The four Variola virus types responsible for smallpox produce a death rate between one in ten at the low end and two – three out of four with an average of 30%.

The disease is as old as history, believed to have evolved from an African rodent virus, at least 16,000 years ago.  The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V died of smallpox in 1145, BC.

Survivors are left with severe scarring and often blinded.  Josef Stalin was famously pockmarked after acquiring the illness at age 7.    Other famous survivors include Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I and Pocahontas.

image003And did you know?  The American Revolution was fought out, entirely in the midst of a smallpox pandemic.

How it all began, is uncertain.  By the fall and winter of 1775, the disease was raging through British-occupied Boston.

In the south, escaped slaves crossed over to British lines only to contract smallpox, and die.  The disease hit Texas in 1778.  New Orleans was particularly hard hit with its densely populated urban areas.  By 1780 it was everywhere from Mexico to the Great Plains to Alaska.

Native populations were particularly hard hit.  As many as 11,000 were killed in the west of modern-day Washington state, reducing populations from 37,000 to 26,000 in just seven years.53baa4eb65efbcef1e7377485bf1f97b.jpegThe idea of inoculation was not new.  Terrible outbreaks occurred in Colonial Boston  in 1640, 1660, 1677-1680, 1690, 1702, and 1721, killing hundreds, each time.  At the time, sickness was considered the act of an angry God.  Religious faith frowned on experimentation on the human body.

On June 26, 1721, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston in consultation with Reverend Cotton Mather, performed the first smallpox inoculations in America.  Two male slaves, an adult and and a two-year-old were inoculated, along with Dr. Boylston’s 6-year-old son.  All three became mildly ill but recovered, never again to be bothered by smallpox.inoculationColonists were chary of the procedure, deeply suspicious of how deliberately infecting a healthy person, could produce a desirable outcome.  John Adams submitted to the procedure in 1764 and gave the following account:

“Dr. Perkins demanded my left arm and Dr. Warren my brother’s [probably Peter Boylston Adams]. They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin about a Quarter of an inch and just suffering the blood to appear, buried a thread (infected) about a Quarter of an inch long in the Channell. A little lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over all, and I was bid go where and do what I pleased…Do not conclude from any Thing I have written that I think Inoculation a light matter — A long and total abstinence from everything in Nature that has any Taste; two long heavy Vomits, one heavy Cathartick, four and twenty Mercurial and Antimonial Pills, and, Three weeks of Close Confinement to an House, are, according to my Estimation, no small matters.”

tumblr_m79lms1miv1rwijh0o1_500As Supreme Commander, General Washington had a problem.  An inoculated soldier would be unfit for weeks before returning to duty.  Doing nothing and hoping for the best was to invite catastrophe but so was the inoculation route, as even mildly ill soldiers were contagious and could set off a major outbreak.

The northern army was especially hard hit in Quebec, with general Benedict Arnold reporting some 1,200 out of 3,200 Continentals sick in the Montreal area, most with smallpox.  It was “almost sufficient to excite the pity of Brutes” he said, “Large barns [being] filled with men at the very heighth of smallpox and not the least things, to make them comfortable and medicines being needed at both Fort George and Ticonderoga.”

Major General John Thomas, Commander of the Army in Quebec was dead of the disease.  John Adams complained “The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians, together.”

By mid-1776, half the continentals in and around Montreal were infected.  The order was given to withdraw.  John Adams cited smallpox, as the cause.  Smallpox01In February 1777 while encamped in Morristown,  Washington became convinced that the benefits outweighed the risks.  Washington himself had survived the dreadful disease.  Martha Washington had undergone the procedure, known as variolation.    He ordered his medics to cut small incisions on the arms of his troops, and to rub the pus from infected soldiers, into the wounds.  Thus inoculated, soldiers were kept under strict quarantine and issued either new or “well washed, air’d and smoaked” clothing. 

The program had enthusiastic support from the likes of Jefferson, Franklin and Adams.  Nearly every continental soldier was inoculated before the end of the war.  Had the program begun a year earlier, the US/Canadian map might look quite different, than it does today.

In Washington’s day, the method used live virus, accounting for the long sick time and high mortality rate. In the 1790s, Doctor Edward Jenner of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England observed milkmaids developing the signature pustules of smallpox on their hands, after touching infected udders. The Orthopoxvirus responsible for “Cowpox” is very similar to that which produces smallpox but results in far milder symptoms. history-smallpox-Google-SearchThe implications were stunning.  Orthopox could be administered in place of live Variola, virtually eliminating side effects and reducing the chance of smallpox outbreak, to zero.

On this day in 1796, Dr. Jenner administered the first modern smallpox vaccination.  The new vaccine was soon being used around the world.

18740597_1338905459526756_4752634614505034047_nSo it was on December 9, 1979, smallpox was officially described, as eradicated.  The only infectious disease ever so declared.

Few among us born after 1980, bear the scar their parents know so well.  Today, stockpiles of live Variola exist only in laboratories, and military bioweapon stockpiles.  Just in case of terrorism, or some rogue nation ever resorting to biological warfare.

Today we grapple with a virus, with a 98.6% recovery rate among those infected.  God help us all if that other stuff ever gets out of the lab.

 

January 27, 1925 Great Race of Mercy

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be needed but this might be enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived, in February.

440px-Diphtheria_is_Deadly_Art.IWMPST14182Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, with early symptoms resembling a cold or flu. Fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.

Later symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies, as proteins form a leathery, white “pseudo membrane” on the throat and nasal tissues.

The disease is all but eradicated today in the United States, but diphtheria was once a major killer of children.

Spain experienced an outbreak of the condition in 1613. The year is remembered to this day, as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease.  In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the white pseudo membrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

1024px-View_of_Nome,_Alaska_with_snow_on_ground
Nome as it looked, in 1916

There were 10,000 living in and around Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the Lower 48, had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be needed but this might be enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived, in February.

The 300,000 units shipped as far as they could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

It was 9:00pm and −50°F on January 27, when “Wild Bill” Shannon and his nine dog team received the 20-pound cylinder of serum. The temperature was −62°F when Shannon reached Minto at 3:00am, hypothermic, with parts of his face blackened by frostbite.

images-151Leonhard Seppala and his dog team took their turn, departing in the face of gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.

Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but Seppala trusted twelve-year-old “Togo” with the lead. Up the 5,000-foot “Little McKinley” and across the unstable ice of Norton Sound, visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see the “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled. Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to his lead dog.

sepp-and-togo (1)
Leonhard Seppala with Togo

With Seppala’s 8-year-old daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, stakes could not have been higher. Seppala and Togo ran a round-trip of 261 miles to make the next handoff on February 1, including 91 miles with the serum capsule.

 

Together the pair had covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 at night. At one point, hurricane force winds upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the dark with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

20 mushers and 150+ dogs had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks.  Not a single serum ampule was broken.

Gunnar_Kaasen_with_Balto
Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

With 28 confirmed cases and enough serum for 30, the “Great Race of Mercy” had held the death toll at 5, 6 or 7, depending on which version you accept. Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died before completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country after Rin Tin Tin.

It was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53-mile run was nothing compared with his own 91, Kaasen’s lead dog little more than a “freight dog”.

A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925 where it stands to this day, though he is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards). Togo lived another four years, though he was never again able to run. He spent his last years in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away on December 5, 1929 at the ripe old age of 16.

Togo_film_posterSeppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.

A month ago, near-100 years after serum run, Disney Film Productions released the film Togo, starring Willem Dafoe as Leonhard Seppala and “Diesel” as Togo, telling the story of two heroes of the serum run, of 1925.

Togo himself is stuffed and mounted, standing watch over the Iditarod museum headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.

January 2, 1819 Time Me, Gentlemen

Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing, “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus (all else being the same) the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness”.

With the invention of gunpowder in the year 142, the Chinese of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a handy if somewhat noisy way, to scare off evil spirits.

The first millennium of the common era was a time of ever improved and more efficient ways for humans to slaughter one another, from the gunpowder slow match of 919 to the fire bombs and gunpowder propelled fire arrows of the Southern Tang, of 975.

The Wuwei Bronze Cannon of 1227 may be the first such weapon in all history.  By 1453, the terrifying bombard of the Ottoman Turks were capable of hurling stone balls up to 24.8-inches in diameter, more than enough to shatter the formerly impregnable Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

Huge siege cannon used in the final assault
Ottoman siege cannon, 1453

For a thousand years, gunpowder weapons large and small businesses and a inflicted massive injury to the human frame, resulting in damage beyond even the skills of the modern surgeon.  Often the only answer was amputation, seemingly by the bushel basket.

sickles_lg
General Dan Sickles leg, destroyed by a 12-pound ball at Gettysburg, 1863

The carnage of the gunpowder era experienced something of a golden age in the 19th century.  Projectiles traveled at a bone-shatteringly slow pace compared with the high velocity weapons of today while innovations such as percussion caps, shrapnel shells and breech loading weapons geometrically increased the rate of fire.

It’s been said the most common objects removed from the bodies of front-line soldiers, were the shattered bones and teeth of the next man in line.

This was a time before anesthesia, when the speed of the surgeon’s knife spelled the difference in the pain experienced by the patient, to say nothing of the poor unfortunates’ chance of survival.  Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing:  “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus” (everything else being the same) “the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness“.

listons-knives-2-1
Robert Liston’s surgical instruments

First came the burly assistants, to hold down the writhing victim


.  In skilled hands the surgeon’s knife could cut all-round in a single stroke, through skin and muscle and sinew clear down to the bone before the saw completed the work of separation.  Screams of agony rent the air as veins, flesh and arteries were cauterized with red-hot irons, vitriol (sulfuric acid) or boiling hot tar.  Should the victim survive the experience the wound would then be sewn shut.  God help the poor soul if there was any infection left after all that.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 –’71, one surgeon amputated 200 shattered limbs in one 24-hour period, a nearly unbelievable average of one every seven minutes.  Perfectly healthy fingers were occasionally severed in the gore and confusion.

Plate_IX_illustration_of_leg_amputation_Sir_Charles_Bell_Wellcome_L0072192.jpg
A 19th-century surgical illustration detailing amputation at the thigh. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. H/T Military-History.org

This was the world of the “Fastest Knife on West End”, a Scottish-born physician who, on this day in 1819, had just embarked on the first year of a medical career which would last until his death, in 1847.

Robert Liston, always the showman, would stride into the operating theater and call out, “Time me Gentlemen.  Time me”.  English surgeon and author Richard Gordon, an expert on Robert Liston, describes what that looked like:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”. 

16944174-0-image-a-45_1565084128752Liston once amputated a leg in 2½ minutes from incision to suture but accidentally severed the poor bastard’s testicles, in the process.

On another occasion, he amputated a leg in 2½ minutes while severing the fingers of one assistant and piercing the coat of an observer.  The spectator was so terrified at the blood and so certain that his own vital organs had been pierced, he died right then and there from heart failure.

Both patient and assistant later died from hospital gangrene, a common problem in the days before Joseph Lister.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Liston remains the only surgeon in history to achieve 300% mortality, on a single procedure.

%d bloggers like this: