August 25, 2010

A shot in the arm

Microorganisms growing on agar plate

The Black Death – bubonic plague – which killed one-quarter of the population of Europe in the 14th century, faded away, but never quite died out.  It returned in the middle of the 19th century in the Third Pandemic, which began in China, spread to India and killed 12 million people in those countries before it began to decline.

In 1894, Dr. Shibasaburo Kitasato was called on to tackle the problem of plague.

Kitasato had already made history as the first person to grow tetanus bacillus in a pure culture.  He was studying with Dr. Robert Koch in Berlin and soon he and Emil von Behring had developed a serum therapy for tetanus.  They did pioneering work in the field of antitoxins and passive immunity, but it was von Behring who was awarded the first Nobel prize for medicine in 1901.

Dr. Shibasaburo Kitasato

Kitasato had returned to Japan in 1891 to found the Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo where he continued to work on such scourges as dysentery and tuberculosis.  In 1894, the government asked him to go to Hong Kong to help with an epidemic of bubonic plague.  Working in a makeshift hut, he succeeded  – on this date reportedly – in isolating the infectious agent in the plague.

Next door, Alexandre Yersin of the Pasteur Institute was also working on the problem.  Their results were almost simultaneous, but it was Yersin that got the credit and the bacterium is named for him.

Four years after his work on the plague, Kitasato and one of his students were able to isolate the bacteria that causes dysentery.  In his lifetime, he made substantial, sometimes seminal contributions to the eradication or amelioration of major causes of human misery with his work on tetanus, tuberculosis, plague, dysentery and anthrax.  His work on antitoxins helped speed the creation of effective vaccines.

Kitasato, who never received a Nobel or had a bacillus named for him, was one of the pioneers of microbiology  – he just happened to live out of the mainstream of European medical circles and at a time when information traveled slowly if at all.  Nonetheless, he should be right there in the pantheon that includes Pasteur, Wasserman, Ehrlich and others.

* * *

This was the date on which the British destroyed the Library of Congress, setting fire to more than 3,000 books.  Such a nasty little war, the War of 1812 – the British really were just plain malicious, burning the White House and all the town halls they could find.  Still smarting from the Revolution, I guess.


1 Comment »

  1. really sad about Kitasato.
    So much to be said about every nations killings and mindless revenge… but they all do some good things too.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — August 25, 2010 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

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