After the accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928, it wasn’t widely available until the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm of Pfizer was able to successfully mass produce it in the early 1940’s, thereby enabling the antibiotic to go ashore with the Allied forces on D-Day.
By the end of WWII, it became an increasingly popular medical weapon as a swift and effective bacterial killer. Within a few decades, new generations of antibiotics and vaccines were developed to obliterate the fatal diseases that had decimated the world’s children for so long.
In the mid sixties, we first visited and explored the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. With each isolated village or community we found tucked in the fold of the hills, we were struck by innumerable churches. Each populated area, no matter how small, had its own church, which is not surprising, as travel from one district to another before the advent of highways after World War II was well-nigh impossible.
The poignant gravestones in the family sections told of life and death from the early 18th century through the first four decades of the 20th. Men past the age of thirty invariably had more than one wife in his lifetime. Women in those days died young during childbirth, as well as from various infectious diseases that soon killed the newborns in the first two years of life.
Most moving of all were the lines of small grave stones, not more than nine by twelve inches, and often crudely dressed stone. Up to a dozen were lined up two and three across in back of parents’ more detailed grave markers. There was only room for the sex of the child, as well as dates of birth and death. Most of the children didn’t survive their first year.
It was a sobering sight, and made us feel blessed that our children, born after 1960, were relatively healthy and had access to penicillin, terramycin and other antibiotics when they were ill. The usual childhood diseases still took their toll, and it was not until the 70’s that a wide array of effective preventive vaccines became available to finally wipe out the scourges of childhood.
I thought back to the birth of my sister in 1947, when I was thirteen. She was diagnosed with a sore throat two days after birth, and the doctors told my parents there was no hope of cure, and she would die within a few days.
She was brought home, placed in her crib, and my parents sat on either side of her as she slipped into a coma, praying and waiting for her death.
That evening, a heavy knocking, drumming a tattoo on the door, startled all of us, and I ran to open it. Our family doctor was there, disheveled and red in the face. Without a word, he strode in and went to the crib.
“There is the new medicine! Penicillin!” he shouted at my grieving parents. “Take her clothes off while I wash up!”
A few moments, he tore open his bag and pulled out a gigantic syringe, attached to an equally long, thick needle. It was just about the length of the baby. Taking out a large bottle of viscous white liquid, he filled the syringe and then injected the glue-like medicine into my sister’s buttocks. Blood squirted over everyone. Finally, the syringe was empty, and he sat down, pale and shaking.
“It is the miracle. It is penicillin. We shall wait and we shall pray,” he breathed. He put on his yarmulke and prayer shawl and sat next to my father.
Two hours later, the fever had broken, and my sister began breathing normally. The doctor left in tears. When he returned the next morning, she was obviously on the road to wellness.
The doctor came back every other day to give her more mega doses of penicillin, and within ten days, she was thriving and healthy.
Our whole neighborhood was abuzz about the miracle. We visited with the family of my little ten year old friend across the street who was permanently crippled by rheumatic heart fever, as well as heart and kidney damage as the results of her bout with scarlet fever. She was doomed to be mostly bedridden the rest of her life.
My own bout with scarlet fever at age eight was serious, lasting about six weeks, but no permanent damage was done. The New York City Board of Health nailed – nailed! – a twelve by eighteen inch bright yellow sign with large, red letters on our door that proclaimed scarlet fever was present, and it was a felony to enter the house and, once inside, refuse to remain isolated therein until the disease had run its course.
Mom lost her job, as a result of staying home with me. My father had to live with relatives, but once a day he made an hour trip home, bringing groceries and other necessities. Mom, wearing a face mask and gloves, hauled the supplies up to the second floor in cardboard cartons tied with rope. Then, together with the mask and gloves, she threw the boxes out the window onto the sidewalk. Dad, himself wearing a face mask and gloves would put the boxes in the trash can out front. He burned the masks and gloves in a large tin bucket.
No one in the neighborhood went near those trash containers. After the disease was officially declared gone, my parents were told by the Department of Health to burn any possessions, books, and clothes I had come in contact with during my illness. Even my beloved teddy bear was destroyed.
Those Scarlet Fever warning signs were ubiquitous throughout the nation. In the 80’s, an antibiotic that wiped the disease out within forty eight hours ended that particular plague of death and tragic aftermaths of debilitation and eventual early death.
Other infectious diseases eventually disappeared, although I see in the media that some parents, not believing the tragedies and death caused by childhood illnesses, refuse to use antibiotics and preventive vaccines. I believe it is far better to take a chance on extremely unlikely allergic reactions than to submit children to almost certain suffering, crippling dangers, and even death.
Another malady responsible for great suffering was smallpox. Every four or five years, a new world-wide pandemic would threaten the nations, and people of all ages would be need to be inoculated. The inoculation caused interesting scarring patterns within ten days on arms or upper thighs, depending on the health worker’s choice of immunization location. During one particularly vicious world-wide pandemic during the 1950’s, both parents and myself became dreadfully ill. My sister escaped with just a mild fever and we often wondered if her early experiences with penicillin was a factor. We three were diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox and were immediately isolated for two weeks. The doctors andNew York Cityhealth workers found my parents and I had pox marks that eventually developed into faint shallow and barely noticeable scars.
Thirty years later, prior to a trip toAfrica, the immunologists who gave me the required inoculations against several dangerous diseases were able to find the signs of that illness, as well as the vaccination scars, on my body. After some debate, it was decided to inoculate me anyway. My reaction to the inoculation was not particularly pleasant, but confirmed my bout with smallpox.
When writing this essay, I ran across http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/children/diseases.htm for those who want to relive their childhood’s medical past.
We live in a healthier world nowadays.