Medical writing in the time of cholera

Pity poor Allen Webb, stationed in Calcutta in 1848, after two major pandemics had wiped out hundreds of thousands of people, having to draft his textbook- the monstrously named Pathologica Indica; Or, The Anatomy of Indian Diseases: Based Upon Morbid Specimens, from All Parts of the Indian Empire, in the Museum of the Calcutta Medical College, Illustrated by Detailed Cases, with the Prescriptions and Treatment Employed.

Left with really nothing to hang his hat on- this was after all, six years before John Snow traced cholera to contaminated water, thereby creating the field of modern epidemiology; and 35 years before Robert Koch identified the comma-shaped, causative bacterium- Webb wrote:

cholera

And so it was, back then, before Pasteur and Koch: the causative agent of cholera and typhus and plague and quite literally malaria was “bad air”. And if you’re curious, one of the recommended methods of treatment of cholera in Webb’s textbook was the administration of chloroform. The patient literally passed out and was “cured” of the malady.

Cholera has made a fool out of more than one scientific soul. On October 7, 1892, a contemporary of Koch, Max von Pettenkofer swallowed one cubic centimeter of bullion laced with the infectious cholera microbes derived from a patient who had died from it. After suffering from intense abdominal pain and diarrhea for nearly a week, he declared when he did not die that the microbe alone was insufficient to cause cholera. Two other famous scientists, Elie Metchnikoff (who would later win a Nobel Prize for immunology work) and Rudolph Emmerich, self-administered infusions and came to the same erroneous conclusion.

Even when Emmerich died in 1914, the New York Times wrongly cited that the deceased had “proved that cholera is caused by a saltpetrous acid.”Emmerich

Those were most certainly different times. Nowadays, I’m not sure that modern Institutional Review Boards would allow these types of experiments on human subjects. That said, self-administering has a long history in microbiology.

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