So, I’m poking around the history of the United States Public Health Service for a story, and I came across this snippet on Yellow Fever:
As late as 1900, the cause of the disease was unknown, the manner in which it spread mysterious, the death rate high, and its appearance a reason for panic and rigid quarantines. Yet the investigation of an American commission in that year solved a mystery that is now familiar. Dr. Carroll, a member of that commission, traced it to the mosquito, known as stegomyia and a few days later, Dr. Lazear, another of the party, sacrificed himself to science by allowing himself to be bitten by one of the insects, contracting yellow fever.
At the time of Lazear’s death, the sources of many diseases – including Typhus and Dengue, both of which still ravaged the American South – remained shrouded in mystery.
So great was Lazear’s discovery, that Lazear himself was immortalized. When his wife died, nearly fifty years later, she got her own obit in the New York Times, and that obit read:
Mrs. Jesse Lazear, widow of the Public Health Service Physician who gave his life in battle against Yellow Fever at the turn of the century…
Of course Lazear was not the only one to suffer for his work. Joseph Goldberger managed to catch Typhus, Yellow Fever and Dengue in the course of studying those diseases.
Lucky for us he survived all three, and around 1914 began working on Pellagra, a disease which not only caused horrific skin lesions, but also drove its victims insane: insomnia, aggression, mental confusion and eventually, full-blown dementia followed by death. The consensus was that Pellagra was an infectious disease, but Goldberger showed that it was actually caused by vitamin deficiency. He spent the rest of his career lobbying for changes in public policy; vitamin deficiency was itself caused by poverty, and Goldberger wanted society to address both simultaneously. His efforts were to no avail because, then as now, nobody really cared about poor people. Goldberger was nominated for a Nobel. He didn’t win. But when he died, in 1929 of Cancer, newspapers paid tribute thusly:
There were other science martyrs, too. Scores, I’m sure. Doctors studying infectious diseases were immortalized in Paul de Kruf’s Microbe Hunters and Men Against Death, both of which were huge hits at the time and remain classics even today. And Public Health Service doctors especially, were seen as heroes; the PHS was considered a branch of the military, and the doctors themselves were, to some extent, trained and treated as soldiers. Newspaper articles across the first half of the last century depict them as men of daring and resolve. In one front page story, for example, they rode a small plane 500 miles out to sea, rescued a ship captain suffering from a heart attack and delivered him back to Boston, where he made a full recovery.
To be sure, I think some of these men were indeed heroic. And I think it’s good to have heroes in general. But there’s something else, here. The Public Health Service was also responsible for Tuskegee, and for the Guatemala Inoculation studies, and for god-only-know what other dubious works, now buried in the dustbins of history. I can’t help thinking that one is directly related to the other. That is, by glorifying a whole group based on the actions of a notable few, we created a blanket under-which all sorts of atrocities might be committed and left unchecked.
We told these men they were heroes, and they believed us. And then they went off and injected prisoners and prostitutes and asylum patients with syphilis; and forced orphans to trade their own blood for utensils; and withheld life-saving medicine from disenfranchised sharecroppers. And by the way, everybody they treated thusly was of a different socioeconomic class and skin color than their own.
Anyway. That’s not where I meant to end up on this post. I only meant to nod at Lazear and Goldberger, and to pay brief homage to a time when we lived in such darkness about the things that were killing us, that a fatal mosquito bite was seen not as a tragic accident but as an act of heroic sacrifice.
The destruction of mosquitos and screening of patients in Havana, and later in New Orleans in 1903, gave [Lazear’s colleagues] worldwide fame. Yet while the remedy has been applied, the origin of Yellow Fever — the germ or bacilli — has never been found or isolated…. It’s discovery is considered so important, however, that there are rewards mounting into the thousands of dollars awaiting the scientist who first discovers it.