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Death before Antibiotics

The world before antibiotics was and extraordinarily dangerous place.

People Examples
March 14th 1941 a British policeman called Albert Alexander died of it. Early that year he had
been scratched on the face by a rose. The wound became infected by bacteria, probably
Staphylococcus aureus with an admixture of various Streptococci, and turned septic. The sepsis
spread. First, he lost an eye. Then, he lost his life.

How many times have you accidentally pricked your finger on a rose thorn, or perhaps a
sewing needle? Nowadays, if the wound became infected you'd be cured almost
immediately. But before the second half of this century, you could have been in big
trouble. Infections were feared then as cancer is feared today. Your glands would swell
up and require lancing to release the pus. A surgeon might even have to amputate your
arm in an attempt to save your life. This was the nightmare of many infectious diseases
before Howard Florey developed penicillin.
Ruth Greenwood, a friends grandmother, knows the cruelty and desperation of this
world well. In 1934, at age 9, she came up with a clever but shortsighted plan to get out of
school: roll around in a patch of poison ivy. Greenwood succeeded in getting an itchy
rash (and skipping class), but as the days went by, the rash became something much
worse. Her legs swelled and broke out in a mass of tender, crimson sores that wept
blood and pus. At night, the fluids soaked through her sheets and dried, fusing the
bedding to her skin. Greenwood remembers being scooped up in the morning, sheets
and all, and put in the bath to soak until the cloth could be peeled away from her flesh.

As she was scratching her rash, Greenwood made tiny cuts in her skin, allowing bacteria
to get inside her body. The cells multiplied and infected her legs, most likely causing a
disease that doctors now call cellulitis. Today shed have been prescribed an oral
antibiotic. Instead, her parents had to rely on the mess of medical hopes and snake oils
that filled the shelves of the pre-antibiotic pharmacy.

First they had her sit in the sun for hours on end, hoping the cell-damaging rays would
also destroy the bacteria doctors would try the same with UV lamps, according to
Spellberg. The infection was finally cured when her doctor prescribed a white cream
spiked with ammoniated mercury to spread on the affected area. The metallic compound
killed the bacteria somehow, possibly by stimulating inflammation that kicked
Greenwoods own immune system into high gear. She was lucky: back then the death
rate for skin infections was about 11 percent. With antibiotics, weve lowered that figure

Joe had been injured at work: not burned, but bruised and cut when a heavy brass

hose nozzle fell on him. The article revealed what happened next. Through one of the
scrapes, an infection set in. After a few days, he developed an ache in one shoulder; two
days later, a fever. His wife and the neighborhood doctor struggled for two weeks to take
care of him, then flagged down a taxi and drove him fifteen miles to the hospital in my
grandparents town. He was there one more week, shaking with chills and muttering
through hallucinations, and then sinking into a coma as his organs failed. Desperate to
save his life, the men from his firehouse lined up to give blood. Nothing worked. He was
thirty when he died, in March 1938.
One of the first people to receive penicillin experimentally was a British policeman, Albert
Alexander. He was so riddled with infection that his scalp oozed pus and one eye had to
be removed. The source of his illness: scratching his face on a rosebush. (There was so
little penicillin available that, though Alexander rallied at first, the drug ran out, and he

What made Alexander doubly unlucky was that he was almost cured. The hospital treating him,
the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, was a few hundred metres from a university laboratory where
Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were brewing up extracts of a mould called Penicillium
chrysogenum. Repeated injections of this extract came close to abolishing Alexanders infection,
but the two scientists ran out of their home-brewed drug before the bacteria had all been killed.
When the treatment stopped the sepsis roared back

First Treatments
. The management of microbial infections in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China is well-
Many ancient cultures used molds, soil, and plants to treat bacterial infections. In
Ancient Serbia, China and Greece, old moldy bread was pressed against wounds to
prevent infection. In Egypt, crusts of moldy wheaten bread were applied on pustular
scalp infections and medicinal earth was dispensed for its curative properties15.
These remedies were believed to influence the spirits or the gods responsible for illness
and suffering. Today we know that the occasional efficacy of these early treatments was
due to the active metabolites and chemicals present in these concoctions.
At around 1550 B.C., Egyptians used honey, lard and lint for dressing wounds. We now
know that honey actually contains substantial amounts of hydrogen peroxide which can
kill bacteria.
More than 2,000 years ago, moldy bread was used in China, Greece, Serbia, Egypt and
probably other ancient civilizations as treatment for some disease conditions, parti
cularly infected wounds. The observed curative powers may have been due to some raw
forms of antibiotics produced by the mold growing on the bread.
Past civilizations were constantly confronted with fatal infectious diseases, some in
catastrophic proportions. Examples of bacterial diseases that have wreaked havoc to
humanity are: Black death or plague, cholera and syphilis. If antimicrobials had been
available, mankinds history would have been altogether different.

Only a few decades ago, antibiotics were considered to be wonder drugs because they worked
so well to cure deadly diseases. Ironically, though, many antibiotics have become less effective,
precisely because they have worked so well and have been used so often.

Antibiotics and similar drugs, together called antimicrobial agents, have been used for the last
70 years to treat patients who have infectious diseases. Since the 1940s, these drugs have
greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases.

Statistics and Risk Before Antibiotics

Before antibiotics, five women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of nine
people who got a skin infection died, even from something as simple as a scrape or an
insect bite. Three out of ten people who contracted pneumonia died from it. Ear
infections caused deafness; sore throats were followed by heart failure. In a post-
antibiotic era, would you mess around with power tools? Let your kid climb a tree? Have
another child?

Nowadays STIs spread by bacteria often require a simple trip to the clinic and a course
of antibiotics.
In the past they were often incurable and deadly.
Before killing you they could cause dreadful disfigurement The standard treatment for
tuberculosis before antibiotics used to be - fresh air.
It's a bacterial infection spread by people coughing and sneezing and it used to be rife in the
It attacks the lungs mainly but can damage any part of the body, including the glands, bones,
and nervous system.
It's rare here nowadays - but that's thanks to antibiotics. In the past a paper-cut could kill.
Anything which could lead to an infection.
That includes surgery of any kind.
And, in a future which is more like the past, procedures where the immune system's currently
given an antibiotic boost to help the body recover will be more dangerous.
For example chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer.
As will be any procedures where the immune system needs to be suppressed by antibiotics,
like for organ transplants. Giving birth was far, far more dangerous before antibiotics.
Both mothers and babies routinely died in childbirth right up until the 1930s, after which there
was a dramatic decline.
Today the risk of a woman dying in England and Wales during labour is between 40 to 50
times lower than 60 years ago.
human suffering was enormous. Even though the bodys disease-fighting immune system can
often successfully fight off bacterial infections, sometimes the germs (microbes) are too strong
and your child can get sick. For example,

Before antibiotics, 90% of children with bacterial meningitis died. Among those children
who lived, most had severe and lasting disabilities, from deafness to mental retardation.
Strep throat was at times a fatal disease, and ear infections sometimes spread from the
ear to the brain, causing severe problems.
Other serious infections, from tuberculosis to pneumonia to whooping cough, were
caused by aggressive bacteria that reproduced with extraordinary speed and led to
serious illness and sometimes death.
In 1918 a group of surgeons took cultures of wound swabs from their patients and found that
90.3% of the wounds were infected [17]. Captain Pettit looked particularly at gas gangrene and
found 53% infected of wounds infected with anaerobic bacteria, however he does not mention
numbers infected with aerobic bacteria [18]. Wounds were likely to be contaminated with
multiple organisms Iodine was given to the soldiers, but it is a weak antiseptic. In the hospitals
and casualty clearing stations potassium permanganate, another mild antiseptic, was used on
suppurating wounds. Sir Escritt recalls: I remember one particular case that had multiple
injuries... it involved the genital organs and the anus. That was a very bad case and of course it
turned septic like everything else. We had to, in the end, put him in a bath, slung in a bath
of potassium permanganate and kept him in that all the time. Just lifted him out to clean it up
and put him back in again. By 1915 infection had been identified as a major cause of mortality.
Carrel invented an indian rubber tube with several holes along its length. This could be placed
along the wound, covered with towelling and the antiseptic solution continuously poured down it.
The fluid was absorbed by the towelling and kept in contact with the surface of the wound [21].
This became known as the Carrel-Dakin treatment. Importance of antiseptic dressings [22] (more info on
carrel dekins method) problem is that is kills the good things to like the fibroblasts that promote
the healing of tissues Dr. Kunz MD)

Topical iodine, bromine and mercury-containing compounds were used to treat infected wounds
and gangrene during the American Civil War. Bromine was used most frequently, but was very
painful when applied topically or injected into a wound, and could cause tissue damage itself.
These treatments inhibited bacterial cell replication, but they could also harm normal human
One of the more famous herbally derived therapies is quinine, which was used to treat malaria.
Artemisinin, which was synthesized from the Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) plant is
another effective malaria treatment.
ou probably have botantically derived therapy against wound infection in your kitchen cupboard.
The use of honey in wound healing dates back to the Sumerians in 2000 B.C.. The high sugar
content can dehydrate bacterial cells, while acidity can inhibit growth and division of many
bacteria. Honey also has an enzyme, glucose oxidase, that reduces oxygen to hydrogen
peroxide, which kills bacteria.
The most potent naturally occurring honey is thought to be Manuka honey. It is derived from the
flower of the tea tree bush, which has additional antibacterial properties.