Milestones in Combating Cholera

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Cholera epidemics were common in the 19th century, and The New York Times -- or The New-York Daily Times, as it was then known -- reported on Sept. 18, 1851, on the front page of the first issue of the newspaper, an outbreak in Portugal. Cholera was mentioned often through the rest of the century, sometimes two or three times a week, usually in lists reporting deaths in the city.

Then on Oct. 28, 1883, the paper printed an article on Page 8 with the headline "Progress of the Germ Theory."

It said, "The cable announced recently that Robert Koch, who went from Germany to study the Egyptian cholera epidemic, has found what many medical men of several nations have long looked for in vain -- the cause of the disease." It was the first time Dr. Koch's name appeared in the pages of The Times.

The article then went on to discuss Dr. Koch's earlier discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium and to describe the still controversial theory of disease that the paper had first mentioned a decade earlier. "Briefly and generally speaking," the article explained, "all epidemic and contagious diseases are under suspicion of being caused by organisms visible only under the microscope, and only then to a trained observer."

On Nov. 29, 1885, the paper published an article describing the findings of a British government commission assembled to examine Dr. Koch's work. Although they agreed that the comma bacilli that Dr. Koch described did truly exist, they denied that the germs had anything to do with cholera.

Yet it was not long before Dr. Koch's view was widely accepted. On May 9, 1893, The Times published news of the first cholera vaccine, developed by Waldemar Haffkine of the Pasteur Institute and announced to scientists the previous July.

Dr. Koch, as it turned out, was not the first to find the bacterium, as The Times reported on Aug. 3, 1884. In a roundup on Page 6 of bits of news from Europe, the second-to-last item begins: "A newspaper published at Milan declares that the cholera germ described by Dr. Koch was first discovered 30 years ago by an Italian doctor named Filippo Pacini. He published in the Italian Medical Gazette, in 1854, a treatise on the cholera, in which he said the disease was due to 'a very simple organism which I shall call a choleraic microbe.' "

Robert Koch received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1905, and The Times noted on Dec. 10 of that year that the prize would be worth $40,000, or a little more than $1 million in today's money. The paper never mentioned Dr. Pacini again, and he remained largely unnoticed by the scientific community until 1965.

It was then, more than 80 years after Dr. Pacini's death, that the Judicial Committee on Bacteriological Nomenclature changed the formal name of the cholera bacillus. It is now officially called Vibrio cholerae Pacini 1854.

NICHOLAS BAKALAR

science

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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