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Thursday, 15 May 2014

The strange case of Bacterium termo

I came across this case by accident, while looking for something completely different for the book I am working on.

It shows how desperate people were in the late 19th century to find a way of curbing consumption or as it was then being called, tuberculosis.

Another example of the desperation: the following week, Science mentioned another treatment being tried:
Another method of treatment which is now attracting the attention of physicians is by injecting remedies directly into the lungs by means of the hypodermic syringe, the needle of which is passed through the wall of the chest, the effort being made to apply the medicinal agent as nearly as possible to the affected portion of the lungs. Some very encouraging cases are reported, in some of which the improvement has been so great as almost to justify one in speaking of them as cures. Carbolized iodine appears to have produced the best results, causing the complete cessation of cough and expectoration, and the further progress of the disease.
— News report, Science, 19 November 1886, 447.
I knew that one had never progressed very far, but I wondered if there might be some link to Coley's work. Back-tracking, I found a report in the British Medical Journal in October, 1886:
At a recent meeting of the Odessa Medical Society (Proceedings of the Odessa Medical Society, 1886, No. 6, pp. 1-12), Dr. Filipovitch, of the Odessa Town Hospital, made a very instructive communication on six cases of advanced pulmonary pthisis, which had been treated by him after the bacterio-therapeutic method, recommended by Professor Arnaldo Cantani … Having obtained, by fractional cultivation, pure culture of the bacterium termo in meat broth, the author took 5 cubic centimetres of the bacterial fluid diluted them with 10 cubic centimetres of boiled water (37° C.), aromatised the mixture with one or two drops of tincture of peppermint (to disguise an offensive odour), and made the patient inhale the whole by means of Richardson's spray-producer.
British Medical Journal 2 October 1886, 641–2.
This went on to report that the method had failed. Then in December, a doctor named A. Primrose Wells (what were his parents thinking of?) reported that he also had tried the method, Where others had reported failure, he said:
I think it: only fair to state what has been my experience in five cases subjected to this treatment. I can scarcely say that failure has been the result of my efforts, for in two of the five cases marked improvement resulted, which continues up to the present time.
— A. Primrose Wells, Five Cases Of Pulmonary Phthisis Treated By The "Bacterium Termo" Spray, British Medical Journal 18 December 1886, 1211–1212.
He had obtained a pure culture of "bacterium termo" in a meat infusion, but as a biologist, I could not place this beastie, but I read on. He described his cases and their responses in detail, but the issue was going to be identifying "bacterium termo". I tried to suppress my sniggers about Primrose spraying rotten meat at people, but I'm only human.  Anyhow, I ploughed on.

Sadly, we will never know what it looks like. The name was used over four decades in the 1800s to indicate "…almost any motile rod found abundantly in decaying organic matter", according to H. J. Conn, writing in 1919. According to Conn, even the purest culture probably had at least two species present, and a study in 1950 concluded that the species would never have a type specimen, and should not be recognised.

Still, if anybody is looking for a good basis for a medical fraud, if you can get a patient to accept having a putrid mass of unidentified soil bacteria squirted into their lungs, you will know that the patient is terminally (a word I used advisedly) gullible — and it's a fair bet that they won't be coming around asking for a refund!

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