Today scientific experiments must meet many safety requirements in order to be carried out. But in the past, anything went. Even eat poop from sick people to show that a disease was not infectious. That was precisely what a most visionary doctor, named Joseph Goldberger.
He went to the southern United States to study pellagra, a disease also known as sharecroppers’ disease. Just a few years ago, Louis Pasteur had postulated the germ theory of diseases. With it, it was demonstrated that the diseases that apparently passed from one person to another did so because of a germ, or microbe, that spread between them. Goldberger’s task was to find that germ. However, when he saw the first cases, the theory that it was an infectious disease ceased to add up to him.
It is true that apparently he was infected. The sharecroppers from the same farm they fell like flies and, from the people who lived in the same house, they used to get infected up to 80%. However, for him it had more to do with food. He did some experiments in prisons in the area, but failed to convince his professional colleagues. Therefore, he chose to experiment on himself by doing something very unpleasant: eat poop. Well, that and many more things,
The mysterious case of pellagra
Pellagra began as a kind of hand burn. Later this became a rash, which also appeared on the face of the patients, shortly before other symptoms such as depression, fatigue, diarrhea or dementia appeared. Furthermore, in about a 40% of cases ended with the death of the patients.
Today it is known that this disease is due to a dietary deficiency of vitamin B3, also called niacin. However, at the beginning of the 20th century its origin seemed to be some mysterious germ.
Joseph Goldberger moved from New York to track the disease, which was also ravaging orphanages, prisons and nursing homes. His first experiment was pretty unethical. The principles of bioethics were still not postulated.
It consisted of recruiting twelve healthy prisoners, who were fed only lard, a typical southern dish consisting of the layer of fat under the skin of the crispy pork back, with grits and molasses. It was not accompanied by any type of vegetable, fresh meat or eggs. The prisoners took it with gusto, but six months later they all fell ill.
With this, the New York doctor intended to demonstrate that the problem was in the food, not in a germ. However, his colleagues continued to insist that these prisoners could have infected each other. He was left with no choice but to take drastic measures. As much as eating poop.
Eating poop to unmask the disease
At this point, Goldberger decided it was time to stop doing research with other people and become a study subject himself. For this reason, he went to a hospital with pellagra patients and took mucus from the nose Of one of them. Afterward, she inoculated it into his own nostrils.
Beyond the disgusting of the intervention, the doctor did not get sick. It was clear that he did not catch it from the respiratory tract. But what if she did it for him? digestive system? Again, she went to the hospital, picked up urine, skin, and stool samples of the sick and, after mixing them with a little flour to compact them and make a pill, He ate it. Everyone thought it was crazy that he dared to eat pellagra poop. Although she also seemed like a genius, since she did not get sick, which made it much clearer that it was not a contagious disease.
It only remained to be seen if it could be transmitted Through the blood. And here it was Goldberger’s wife who, fed up with hearing criticism of her husband, volunteered. She was injected with the blood of a woman very sick with pellagra and nothing happened to her either. Did she finally get the support of the rest of the doctors that way? The truth is that no.
The key was in the yeast
Goldberger returned home saddened by the outcome of events, but did not give up. He continued researching with dogs, to whom he tried to cause pellagra in the same way as to the prisoners. But they didn’t seem to like the lardo, so he accompanied the dish with a little bit of yeast. This was commonly used to whet the appetite. However, he also found that dogs that took it because they were unable to eat the southern dish otherwise never got sick.
Therefore, when he found out about a new outbreak of pellagra in the south, he traveled there and began to administer leaven to the sick. These recovered quickly, so we proceeded to see which component of it was being responsible for the cure. It had several components that were very poor in the southern diet, including niacin. For this reason, Goldberger’s theory that, in reality, pellagra was not an infectious diseasebut a condition due to a nutritional deficit.
Everything had a happy ending. Even though he, his wife and some other volunteers who also dared to eat poop could have ended very badly. Let’s not forget that they introduced human bodily fluids into his organism without any type of sterilization. Today everything would be crazy. In its day it was also, everything is said, but at least it served to save thousands of lives.