September 13, 1987 Things that Glow

The abandoned machine was little more than a radiological time bomb.

220px-Teletherapy_Capsule2.svgOn September 13, 1987, Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira entered the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), bent on theft. The private hospital was permanently closed at the time, and partly demolished. Alves and Pereira were looking for anything they might sell, for scrap.

What they found, was more than either man had bargained for.

At one time, the radiotherapy unit in the central Brazilian city of Goiânia had served untold numbers of oncology patients, using ionizing radiation to control cell growth and even kill off any number of cancers, following surgical removal of the tumor.

Now, the abandoned machine was little more than a radiological time bomb.

Four months earlier, the IGR had attempted to remove their equipment, in the midst of a legal dispute with then-owner of the property, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. A court order prevented the removal, as owners of the company wrote letters to the National Nuclear Energy Commission, warning that someone needed to take responsibility “for what would happen with the caesium bomb”.

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“A wheel type radiotherapy device which has a long collimator to focus the radiation into a narrow beam. The caesium chloride radioactive source is the blue rectangle, and gamma rays are represented by the beam emerging from the aperture.” H/T Wikipedia

The radioactive source within the “external beam radio therapy” unit is a “wheel type” canister, with shielding walls of lead and steel and designed to rotate the source material when in use, between storage and irradiation positions.

Alves and Pereira removed the capsule from the heart of the machine, the stainless steel canister containing just over 3-ounces of highly radioactive caesium chloride, an inorganic salt derived from the radioisotope, caesium-137.

The court had posted a security guard, but he or she must have been snoozing, at the time.  The two scavengers placed the canister in a wheel barrow, and brought it to Alves’ home to see what they had found.

The pair experienced the dizziness and diarrhea of radiation poisoning,  but attributed symptoms to something they ate.  Pereira developed burns on his fingers, the size and shape of the canister’s aperture.  Meanwhile, Alves continued to tinker with the thing, finally freeing the capsule from its protective rotating head.  Poking the capsule with a screwdriver, a dark blue light could be seen from within, the florescence of electromagnetic radiation.

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Radiation burns following exposure to left hand, H/T ResearchGate.net

Radiation burns would cost Pereira his fingers and Alves his right arm, but the two would survive the exposure.  The owner of the scrapyard they sold the thing to, wasn’t so lucky.

goiania_webFive days after the theft, Alves sold the items he had pilfered, to a nearby scrapyard. Noticing the blue glow from the punctured capsule, the scrapyard owner thought the object might be valuable or even supernatural, and took the thing inside. Several rice-sized grains of the glowing material were pried from inside the capsule, as Devair Ferreira (the owner of the scrapyard) invited friends and family to come and see the strange, glowing substance. Ferreira’s brother Ivo brought some of the stuff home to his six-year-old daughter, about the time when Devair’s 37-year-old wife Gabriela, became ill.

It was she who first noticed how many and how quickly, the people around her were getting sick. Too late for Ivo’s daughter Leide, who couldn’t resist rubbing the glowing blue powder on her skin, and showing it to her mother.  Anyone who ever raised a six-year-old daughter, knows what that must have looked like.

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International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)

By the time the presence of nuclear radiation was discovered on the 29th, the Goiânia nuclear disaster qualified as a Five on the International Scale of Nuclear Events, the INES.  Tons of topsoil had to be removed from a number of sites, and several houses, demolished.

Goiania-Accident-September-13-1987The incident was broadcast all over Brazil, and 130,000 people people flooded into area hospitals, afraid they had been exposed. One thousand individuals showed greater than background levels of radiation, 249 showed significant signs of contamination.

Four died.  The wife of the scrapyard owner Gabriela, who was first to figure it all out.  Two employees who had worked to remove the lead for its scrap value, Israel dos Santos aged 22 and Admilson de Souza, aged 18.  And that little girl, Leide, who was so happy to see her skin, glowing blue.

In the public civil suit that followed, the three doctors who owned the IGR, were ordered to pay 100,000 Brazilian Real, (equivalent to $24,000 US), for the derelict condition of the building.  The two thieves who stole the stuff in the first place, were never charged.

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.

 

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September 2, 1945 Unit 731

To perform even the most cursory examination of WW2 is to walk among a catalog of atrocities, unimaginable to the modern reader. As if the very nightmare pits of hell had opened and unleashed horrors, unthinkable even to the blackest visions of the perverted and depraved. A true reckoning of the horrors of that war, is capable of producing psychological damage.

As Western historians tell the tale of WW2, the deadliest conflict in history began in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The United States joined the conflagration two years later, following the sneak attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan.

To perform even the most cursory examination of WW2 is to walk among a catalog of atrocities, unimaginable to the modern reader. As if the very nightmare pits of hell had opened and unleashed horrors, unthinkable even to the blackest visions of the perverted and depraved. A true reckoning of the horrors of that war, is capable of producing psychological damage.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

The mountains of gold teeth, of eyeglasses and hair and children’s shoes, testify in mute witness to the systematic extermination of eleven million souls in the gas chambers and ovens of the “Master Race”.  The Untermenschen:  The Jews.  The Roma (“gypsies”).  The physically and mentally disabled.  The Poles and other Slavic races, Jehovah‘s Witnesses, homosexuals, and members of political opposition groups.

Mass graves and savage reprisals by Nazi death squads for the imaginary “collective guilt” of civil populations. The vicious brutality inflicted upon the diseased and starving captives of the countless prison camps, of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere“.

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“Imperial Japanese-run prisoner-of-war camps within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere known during World War II from 1941 to 1945”. H/T Wikipedia

The tales are widely told and deservedly so.  Never should such atrocities be forgotten, any more than the cataclysmic fire bombing campaigns of entire cities, nor the nuclear annihilation which brought this whole ghastly conflagration, to a close.

Yet, of 100 randomly selected adults, how many are aware of “Unit 731″ and the other “medical experimentation” centers of the Kempetai, possibly the most hideous episode in this entire parade of horribles?

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General Shirō Ishii, Commandant of Unit 731

In the East, the war which began in 1939 dates back to 1931, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria beginning on September 18.

The invasion followed the Mukden incident, an entirely staged “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose, to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors eight years later, almost to the day.

The puppet state of Manchukuo now joined most of the Korean peninsula under Japanese subjugation.  This and subsequent invasions and the famine and civil wars which ensued, killed more people during this eight-year period, than the modern populations of Canada and Australia.  Combined.

The covert biological and chemical warfare research program conducted by Unit 731 began operations two years before the European war, during the “second Sino-Japanese War” of 1937-’45. Originally set up by the Kempeitai military police arm of the Imperial Japanese army, Unit 731 was taken over and commanded until the end of the war by General Shirō Ishii, a combat medic officer of the Kwantung Army.

Thousands of so-called “logs” (“Maruta”, in Japanese) were brought through the 150 buildings comprising Unit 731, and smaller facilities known as Unit 100 and Unit 516.  They were men, women and children, captives subjected to unspeakable acts of barbarity, in the name of medical “science”.   70% of Unit 731’s victims were ethnic Chinese, but the list includes Soviet, Mongolian and Korean nationals and possibly European, American and Australian POWs, as well.

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Frostbite “experiment”

One example of the work there, is physiologist Yoshimura Hisato’s interest in hypothermia. The arms and legs of prisoners were submerged in ice or exposed to sub-zero winter cold until frozen solid, with ice accumulated on skin. Limbs were judged “ready” when they made a sound like a wooden board, when struck with a cane. Re-warming methods were carried out, from exposure to open fire to dousing in hot water. Sometimes the subject was simply left alone, to see how long a person’s own blood took to warm up the now-destroyed limbs.

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“Japanese personnel in protective suits carry a stretcher through Yiwu, China during Unit 731’s germ warfare tests. June 1942”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Human beings were intentionally infected with diseases such as cholera, anthrax or venereal disease, or nerve, chemical and biological warfare agents of every description. Then, as always, the live dissections, and examination of the prisoner’s organs.

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“Germ” warfare experiment, being carried out at Unit 731

Female prisoners were subjected to rape and forced pregnancy, to test the “vertical transmission” of all of it, from mother to child.

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Unit 731 Museum, Harbin. “A permanent lab of the Troop No.731 to research the formation, therapy and prevention of frostbite. Before 1939, the troop did frostbite experiments generally in the fields.” Credit Samuel Kim, China Chronicles

Such “medical experiments” were carried out with no regard for the subjects’ survival.  In fact, live dissections were performed on fully aware and un-anesthetized victims, unless they were merely buried alive.  Such humane measures as unconsciousness, were thought to skew the “data”.  Not a single prisoner assigned to Unit 731, survived.  Not one.

Photographs may be found on-line if you wish, of the vivisection of live and fully conscious human beings.  I didn’t go there.   The images I decided to show, are bad enough.

Unit 731 prisoners were herded together onto firing ranges, to measure the damage done by weapons from swords to the Nambu 8mm pistol, to machine guns or bayonets and grenades.  Even flame throwers.

Bubonic plague-infected fleas were bred in laboratories at Unit 731 and Unit 1644, and spread by low flying aircraft in the coastal city of Ningbo and Changde in the Province of Hunan. Chinese civilians killed in outbreaks of bubonic plague, number thirty thousand or more.

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“Unit 731 researchers conduct bacteriological experiments with captive child subjects in Nongan County of northeast China’s Jilin Province. November 1940”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Throughout the eight years of its existence, 1937 -1945, Unit 731 and its counterparts received generous support from the Japanese government.

On this day in 1945, Representatives of the Imperial Japanese government signed the formal instrument of surrender aboard the “Mighty Mo”, the Iowa-class battleship USS Missouri, ending World War 2 in the Pacific.

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September 2, 1945

After the war, Unit 731 records were burned and researchers resumed civilian lives, as if nothing had happened. Many went back to faculty positions. Like “Operation Paperclip”, the combined British – American effort to scour the German talent pool for scientists and technicians of every sort, Japanese researchers were given immunity from prosecution, in exchange for what they knew.

Shirō Ishii was arrested by US occupation authorities after the war, and managed to negotiate immunity, in exchange for their full disclosure of germ warfare data based on human experimentation. On May 6 1947, General Douglas MacArthur wrote to Washington that “additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence.”

After that, Ishii all but stepped off the pages of history.

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Today, the former Unit 731 bioweapon facility at Harbin is open to the public, as a war crimes museum

Cambridge University history lecturer Richard Drayton claims that he showed up in Maryland, to advise on bioweapons. Some sources place him on the Korean peninsula in 1951, still others claim he never left Japan where he died of throat cancer, at the age of 67.

In April of this year, the National Archives of Japan disclosed for the first time, a full list of the 3,607 people who worked for Unit 731. The Japanese government has yet to apologize for its acts of barbarity, nor is it likely to, anytime soon.  No more than the government in China, is likely to forget.

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Unit 731 facility, in Harbin

August 28, 1854 Broad Street Well

If you’re ever in London, stop and hoist a glass to an unsung hero.  One of the Founding Fathers, of modern epidemiology.

The waterborne bacterium Vibrio cholerae (V. cholerae) lives in the warm waters of coastal estuaries and rivers, and the waters along coastal plains. Most of the time, those contracting the bacterium do so by consuming contaminated water, developing only mild symptoms or none at all.

Most times the infection resolves itself yet, at times, urban density has combined with poor sanitation, to produce some of the most hideous pandemics, in medical history.

The origins of Cholera, are unknown. The Portuguese explorer Gaspar Correa described a flare-up in the Ganges Delta city of Bangladesh in the spring of 1543, an outbreak so virulent that it killed most victims within eight hours, with a mortality rate so high that locals struggled to bury all the dead.

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V. Cholerae populations undergo explosive growth in the intestines of the sufferer, releasing a toxin and causing cells to expel massive quantities of fluid. Severe cramps lead to “rice water” diarrhea and the rapid loss of electrolytes.  Dehydration is so severe that it leads to plummeting blood pressures and often, death.  It’s easy to see how the disease can “spike”.  One such episode can cause a million-fold increase in bacterial populations in the environment, according to the CDC.

The first pandemic emerged out of the Ganges Delta in 1817, spreading to Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. 100,000 were killed on the island of Java, alone. The severe winter of 1823-’24 appears to have killed off much of the bacteria living in water supplies, but not for long.

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H/T Cholera. Between Life and Death Fr. Scott Binet MD, MI CTF-SOS D RS Sao Paulo, Brazil – October 20, 2011

The second Cholera pandemic began in 1830-’31, spreading throughout Poland, Russia and Germany. The disease reached Great Britain in 1832, when authorities undertook quarantines and other measures, to contain the outbreak.

Four years earlier, William Burke and William Hare had carried out 16 murders over a ten-month period in Edinburgh, selling the corpses to Doctor Robert Knox for dissection during his anatomy lectures. Now, quarantines were met with pubic fear, and distrust of government and medical authorities. ‘Cholera riots’ broke out in Liverpool and London, with demands to ‘Bring out the Burkers”.

burke_and_hare-600x450The world would see four more cholera pandemics between 1852 and 1923, with the first being by far, the deadliest. This one devastated much of Asia, North America and Africa. in 1854, the worst year of the outbreak, 23,000 died in Great Britain, alone.

In 1760, the British capital of London was home to some 740,000 souls. One-hundred years later, population shifts had ballooned that number to nearly 3.2 million, in a city without running water.

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A Drop of Thames Water, by Punch,,1850

At one time, the many farms surrounding the city of London used the, er…”stuff” provided by “Gong Farmers”, the ‘nightsoilmen’ whose execrable job it was to shovel out the growing numbers of cesspits throughout the city, for fertilizer.  Transportation costs grew as the city expanded, and the farms moved away.  In 1847, solidified bird droppings (guano) were brought in from South America at a cost far below that of the local stuff, leaving London’s poorer quarters increasingly, to their own filth.

The “Great Stink” of Victorian-era London is beyond the scope of this essay, save to point out that formal portraits may be found of Queen Victoria herself, with a clothespin on her nose.  Today the topic is mildly amusing and not a little disgusting however, in an era before public sewage, we’re talking about life and death.

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In 1854, police constable Thomas Lewis lived with his wife Mary and five-month-old Frances, at 40 Broad Street in the Soho neighborhood of London.  The baby developed severe diarrhea over August 28-29, as Mrs Lewis soaked the soiled ‘nappies’ in pails of water.  These she dumped into the pit in front of her house, as first her baby and then her husband, sickened and died.

The pit was three feet away from the Broad Street well, where much of the neighborhood came to pump drinking water.

homePageImageSeveral other outbreaks had occurred that year, but this one was particularly acute.  Within the next three days, 127 died within a short distance of the Broad Street address.  By September 10, there were five-hundred more.

In the third century AD, the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon first described the “miasma” theory of illness, holding that infectious disease such as Cholera were caused by noxious clouds of “bad air”. Today the theory is discredited but, such ideas die hard.

Most everyone blamed the fetid air for the cholera outbreak, but Dr. John Snow was different.  Snow suspected there was something in the water and, through door-to-door interviews and careful analysis of mortality rates, devised a ‘dot map’ identifying the Broad Street address.

“On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street …”

Snow himself believed in the Miasma theory of disease as did Reverend Henry Whitehead, who helped him collect his data. Yet somehow, the pair became convinced that infectious agents were somehow concentrated in the water, and they had found the “Index Case”.

Despite near-universal skepticism regarding Dr. Snow’s theories, the pump handle at 40 Broad Street was removed.  It was later re-installed but, by that time, the danger had passed.  Untold numbers of lives were saved by Dr. Snow’s intervention.

Dr. Snow succumbed to a stroke in 1858 and died at the age of 45, never learning how right he had been.  Dr. Louis Pasteur opened his institute for the study of microbiology, thirty years later.

Today, the place is known as “Broadwick Street”.  There’s a replica of the old water pump out front of #40, across from the John Snow pub.  If you’re ever in London, stop and hoist a glass to an unsung hero.  One of the Founding Fathers, of modern epidemiology.

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.

August 20, 1938 Lucky Man

Lou Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.

The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name, Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbiaGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters that day, to set a team record. The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who had been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful, left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

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Lou Gehrig played Fullback for Columbia during the 1922 season

New York Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the New York Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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“Gehrig with his parents, Christina and Heinrich, in 1938. The three lived together in the house until Gehrig got married in 1933”. Hat tip, New York Daily News

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr.

Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, and went into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

lou-gehrigThe team was in Detroit on May 2 when he told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

ny_50yankess_02Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939, his once mighty body now so weakened by the disease which would take his name, as to barely be able to stand.  Only two months earlier, manager Joe McCarthy had asked Babe Dahlgren to take the Iron Horse’s position.  Now he asked the 1st baseman, to look out for his dying teammate.  “If Lou starts to fall, catch him.”

Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.

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As the ceremony drew to a close, Master of Ceremonies Sid Mercer asked for a few words.  Overwhelmed and struggling for control, Gehrig waved him off.  The New York Times later wrote, “He gulped and fought to keep back the tears as he kept his eyes fastened to the ground”.  62,000 fans would have none of it.  The chant went up.  “We want Lou!” We want Lou!”

Eleanor Gehrig, a “tower of strength” throughout her husband’s ordeal, watched from a box seat.  New York Daily News reporter Rosaleen Doherty wrote that she did not cry, “although all around us, women and quite a few men, were openly sobbing.”

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At last, Lou Gehrig shuffled to the microphone, and began to speak. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.”  As if the neurodegenerative disease destroying his body, was merely a “bad break.” He looked down and paused, as if trying to remember what to say.  And then he delivered the most memorable line, of his life.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and I thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games, since 1997.

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I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees. But seriously.  They’re a class act..

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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.

August 12, 1865 Wash your Hands

Today, the idea that microrganisms 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 expressed 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.”

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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.

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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 microrganisms 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_9In 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 the “chief resident,” of today.

300px-AAKH-1784At 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% at 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 childbirth in that place. The disparity between the two clinics “made me so miserable”, Semmelweis said, “that life seemed worthless”. He had to know the reason why.

Puerperal Peritonitis 1912 MAChildbed 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 was it. Some unknown “cadaverous material” had to be responsible for the difference.

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

Ignaz Philipp SemmelweisMortality rates in the First Clinic dropped by 90%, 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 was zero.

The European medical establishment celebrated the doctor’s findings, and Semmelweis was feted as 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 didn’t help himself.  The medical establishment took offense to the idea that they themselves were the cause of the mortality problem, and that the answer lay in simple cleanliness.

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.

Yearly_mortality_rates_1841-1846_two_clinicsDr. 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 doubt 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.

On 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 sustained following a severe beating by asylum guards.

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June 24, 1374 The Madness of the Dance

Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

Amidst our people here is come
The madness of the dance.
In every town there now are some
Who fall upon a trance.
It drives them ever night and day,
They scarcely stop for breath,
Till some have dropped along the way
And some are met by death.
– Straussburgh Chronicle of Kleinkawel, 1625

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A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone were to provoke the wrath of St. Vitus, the Sicilian saint martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.  One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance, occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.

In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237, a distance of some sixteen miles. In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until the span collapsed.

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A major outbreak St. Vitus’ Dance occurred on June 24, 1374. The population writhed and jerked through the streets of Aachen, screaming of visions and hallucinations until, one by one, each collapsed.  There, victims continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

dancing-plague1Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

This “choreomania”, more commonly referred to as dancing mania, spread throughout Europe, fanning out to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.

One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in by the end of a week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of this primarily female group actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack or stroke.  Others collapsed in exhaustion, their bloody feet no longer able to hold them up.

According to one report, the dancing plague was killing fifteen people every day.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from dance mania were possessed by the devil, others by ‘hot blood’. Doctors were called, who advised that the Dance be allowed to run its course. Bands were hired and one town even built a dance floor, to contain the phenomenon.

There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840.

ErgotonRyeEven today there is little consensus about what caused the phenomenon. Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, a toxic and psychoactive fungus of the Claviceps genus, also known as ergot.  Often ingested with infected rye bread, symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.

Many associate the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 with ergot poisoning but, for others, such explanations are wanting.  Both the dancing episodes of earlier centuries and the witchcraft chapter involved lucid and deliberate action, far more than the convulsions and involuntary spasms associated with ergotism.

Others describe the Dancing Plague phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by the Bubonic Plague.  The Black Death, a pandemic which killed 75-100 million people around the earth, in a world with a population of 450 million.  The explanation seems as plausible as any.  The modern mind is incapable of understanding (at least mine is) what it is to live in a world where one in every four-to-five people on the planet is dead, killed by a horror not one of them understands.

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Long before germ theory was commonly understood, disease was thought to be borne of odors. Medieval plague doctors donned head-to-toe waxed canvas gowns and leather hats, with the distinctive beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs.

Today, a calamity of such magnitude would kill over 1.5 Billion souls.

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June 12, 1928 The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Lane Tech high school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbia-universityGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. Gehrig played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for the New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season. In 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”, the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

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He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, and a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On this day in 1928, Gehrig hit 2 triples and a pair of home runs, leading the Yankees in a 15-7 victory over the Chicago White Sox.  At Comiskey Park, no less.

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He was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam in August 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

lou-gehrig-5Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends Streak

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939. He was awarded trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them. Addressing his fans, Gehrig described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium back in 2013, the week after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

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I thought about Lou Gehrig, and how the man compares with some of these guys today.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself.  I think I’m required by state law, to hate the Yankees.  But, all kidding aside.  The man and the club.  They’re a pair of Class Acts.

Gehrig

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