Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

Invincible Microbe:  Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

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Reader Personality Type
Clarion July 2012
Science Curriculum

“Two Italian physicians were astonishingly accurate in their speculation about tuberculosis of the lungs. Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553) was convinced that phthisis was transmitted by invisible particles that he called seminaria (Latin for ‘seeds’). He claimed the seminaria could survive outside the human body and still infect. “One hundred years after Fracastoro, a professor of anatomy, Giovanni Battista Morgagni (1682-1771), also suggested that the disease was contagious. Morgagni was so concerned about this that he flatly refused to perform autopsies on victims of tuberculosis. Instead he had assistants cut open the bodies while he directed the action from a specially built viewing gallery a safe distance away. Neither Fracastoro nor Morgagni was able to prove his theory through scientific experiments, and both were largely ignored for several hundred years.” Wait until you read about all the things that were, instead, done to those suffering from consumption. INVINCIBLE MICROBE, a startling and well-researched history of the long and never-ending search for a cure to tuberculosis, provides so many interesting facts about all sorts of related social, scientific, and medical topics. I learned, for instance, about the guy who stumbled upon the invention of the stethoscope when he rolled up a piece of paper, held one end against a patient’s cardiac region, and listened to the other end. I learned how, from its inception in 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) refused to allow African Americans and other minorities to join their organization or any of the regional branches and how segregation extended to T.B patients. I learned how, during the Great Depression, the State of California expelled thousands of American immigrants, rather than treat their tuberculosis. And I learned about the staggering toll for which this disease has been responsible over thousands of years. (To highlight the truly-long history of tuberculosis, the authors employ a passage from Deuteronomy amongst a page of interesting quotes that is located between the dedication page and the table of contents.) “One modern microbiologist has estimated that by 1850 between 75 to 90 percent of all people on earth had the TB germ in them, and that 20 percent of those people developed active cases of the disease. ‘Tuberculosis,’ Dr. Thomas L. Dormandy noted sadly, ‘slaughtered the poor by the millions.’” It also handed a death sentence to criminals: “Half of all prisoners in England’s Chatham Naval Prison died of TB every year between 1870 and 1880. In the United States before 1910, no one serving a life term in any prison survived longer than twelve years.” Throughout this history, we get big doses of historic medical quackery as we learn how, for instance, kings practiced faith healing back in the middle ages, and how the godfather of the TB sanatorium movement didn’t let the absence of any scientific evidence get in the way of his proclaiming his many T.B.-related theories. We learn how the historic discovery of streptomycin abruptly ended the plague of tuberculosis and how, just as abruptly, the new era of T.B. suffering was ushered in. The authors conclude their history with the startling current state of the fight: “2 billion people – one-third of the world’s population – carry the tuberculosis germ, including at least 15 million people in the United States. Of these, 2 to 3 million will die every year, but not before each infects an estimated ten to twenty other people.” In my many years of raising Nubian dairy goats, I had to have my animals tested for T.B. in order to show or transport them. In my many years of working with preschoolers, I had to have me regularly tested for T.B. I can now see why this, of all diseases, was the one for which I’d needed that testing. Richie Partington, MLIS Richie's Picks _ (

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