Little Bits of History

Beating a Killer

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 24, 2012

Robert Koch

March 24, 1882: Robert Koch announces he has discovered the causative agent for the killer disease – tuberculosis (TB). Koch discovered the disease was caused by a bacterium. It was named Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease has been around for thousands of years. The earliest finding of M. tuberculosis is in the remains of a bison dating form 18,000 years ago. How the disease came to infect both cattle and humans is unknown. TB has been found in the 9,000 year old skeletal remains of humans as well as in Egyptian mummies dating from about 5,000 years ago. It didn’t reach South America until about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago.

The Greeks called the disease phthisis. In ≈ 460 BC Hippocrates noted it was the most widespread disease and usually resulted in death. TB produces various symptoms and it was the 1820s before it was found to be all one disease. It was also called consumption and those with the disease were often consumed by it. The most frequent site for the bacterium to attack is the lungs, but it can and does attack all the major body systems. TB is spread through the air as victims cough and sneeze. It remains endemic in African and Asian countries with 1.9 million people succumbing to this killer in 2009 alone.

Robert Koch announced his findings of the causative agent of this horrible disease in 1882 when one out of every seven deaths was caused by TB. He was already famous in the study of bacteriology, being named as the co-founder of the science with Louis Pasteur. By 1881 he was advocating for heat sterilization of surgical instruments. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1905 for his work with TB. He formulated Koch’s postulates which form the basis of bacteriology studies.

Today, about one-third of the world’s population has been infected with TB. The disease can be latent, meaning the bacteria exists in the body but in small numbers and does not produce symptoms. Active TB does cause symptoms and if untreated is usually fatal. People are more susceptible to the disease if their immune system is compromised. The US has 25,000 new cases per year with about 40% of those occurring in immigrants from endemic regions. It was once hoped we could eradicate the disease completely. However there have been drug resistant strains developing, some resistant to multiple drugs.

In high school, I won a prize for an essay on tuberculosis. When I got through writing the essay, I was sure I had the disease. – Constance Baker Motley

The answer to old age is to keep one’s mind busy and to go on with one’s life as if it were interminable. I always admired Chekhov for building a new house when he was dying of tuberculosis. – Leon Edel

Dying of tuberculosis: The earth is suffocating…. Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive. – Frederic Chopin

Whatever happened to the good old days: you know, dirty attics, tuberculosis and general all-round suffering? – Arnold Wesker

Also on this day:

Alaska Mess – In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and began to spill oil.
Cruising – In 1898, the first American built automobile was purchased.
Metropolitan Life – In 1868, the insurance company was formed.

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