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Sunday, 12 January 2014

The trick cyclist in upper west Central Park

This story involves dead germs, invertebrate eyes and a mutant foxglove. Be warned!
I was actually doing a small vignette on Coley's mixed toxins when I came across Bertram Buxton. Coley was in the habit of treating sarcomas with a heat-killed mixture of two bacteria, Serratia marcescens and Streptococcus pyogenes. He injected his brew into cancers of the colon and uterus. "Coley's mixed toxins" as the brew was known, had mixed results, but a few of them were spectacular.

Now before you shrink back in horror and disgust, these were serious germs. Various strains and infections of Streptococcus pyogenes can cause impetigo, strep throat, scarlet fever, erysipelas and toxic shock syndrome. Serratia marcescens plays a role in some forms of bacteraemia, so neither is something to take lightly, but the treatment was certainly less deadly than the disease.

More importantly, medical lore had recorded cases where gangrene infections had seen off cancers, so there was a scientific basis of sorts. A decade or so back, researchers started to see that the secret was probably a cytokine, a chemical known as Tumour Necrosis Factor or TNF. For a while, there was a flurry of activity, but then it all died away again.
Anyhow, that took me to the pages of Science to see what had been said about Coley's toxins. That brought me to Dr Buxton when I encountered his obituary, written after he died in Devon at the age of 82, in 1934.

Buxton had somehow fetched up on a cholera ship in New York harbour in the 1890s. I will have to poke around later, to find out what a cholera ship was, but I can make a guess. Ten years or so later, now aged 50, he was working as a pathologist, preparing Coley's toxins for the treatment of inoperable sarcoma".

NOT Dr. Buxton.
He returned to England in 1912, but before then, he had shown a stern distaste for the money-grubbing that so often characterises modern science—and even more medicine. When some of his work looked as though it might be commercially important, he decamped to Venezuela and wrote "a remarkable study of the invertebrate eye". He was also an expert and a pioneer in microphotography, but where I would regard that as a diversion, his obituarist, one James Ewing, did not.

"His sole diversion was riding the bicycle and his remarkable skill in trick performances was long remembered by pedestrians on the upper west side of Central Park."

Back in England and now aged 60, Buxton turned to plant phsiology at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, and "produced by mutation a giant fertile hybrid of foxglove which was recognised by the Kew authorities as a new species".

Ewing quoted an earlier obituary in The Times, which referred to his work in agglutination, laying the foundation for studies in the assay of toxins and antitoxins. "The perfect charm, breadth of view, and superb technique are memories of Buxton which will not easily be forgotten by his many pupils and associates."

My current writing program has no place for Buxton, so I thought I would share with you this man who seems to have devoted his life to knowledge.

They just don't breed them like that any more. No, not the foxgloves, silly!

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