Friday, July 06, 2007

Beauty and terror

On the evening of March 24, 1882, a previously unknown country doctor in Germany delivered one of the most important scientific lectures of all time to the Physiological Society of Berlin. The audience included some of the country's most eminent scientists and physicians, who listened intently as small, bespectacled Robert Koch drew their attention to the table in front of him, where he had prepared glass slides of animal and human tissue for examination under the microscope. "Now - under the microscope the structures of the animal tissues, such as the nucleus and its breakdown products, are brown, while the tubercle bacteria are a beautiful blue," he said.

Blue because of a new method of staining developed by Koch that revealed what no one had seen before. There, under the microscope, were microscopically-small, pickle-shaped bacteria, the infectious agent of tuberculosis, mankind's most persistent scourge, glistening the color of a tropic sea.

I mentioned yesterday that I had been reading the reminiscences of women who grew up here in the West Kerry Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) in the years before the Second World War. Again and again, they speak of the terrible affliction of tuberculosis. Contracting the disease was effectively a death sentence. In some families, every young person was stricken. The specter of TB hung over the community like an ominous cloud. The fairies -- or malevolent spirits of some sort -- seemed to have it in for this remote corner of Ireland.

Not quite. What afflicted the West Kerry Gaeltacht was poverty, crowded living conditions, and a virtual absence of community health care. It was not the fairies, but coughing, spitting, sneezing, speaking and kissing that spread the disease -- difficult to avoid when as many as a dozen people might be living under one small roof. There was nothing malevolent about Mycobacterium tuberculosis; the microbe was doing what we all do, making more of its kind. Not until the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin in 1946 was effective treatment and cure possible.

All the prayers in the world did not alleviate the disease. Nighty family rosaries, patterns at holy shrines and wells, and personal mortifications had no effect. The faith of the people may have helped them endure the affliction, but it was the scientific way of knowing -- embodied in people like Robert Koch -- that ended the curse of TB in West Kerry.