treponema

Founding the Antibiotic Era

The antibiotic era as we know it today started with syphilis. Yes, the face-ravaging, sanity-altering sexually transmitted infection. At the turn of the 19th century, syphilis was endemic and almost incurable. Caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidium, syphilis was usually treated with inorganic mercury salts. But mercury salts treatment had extremely severe and unpleasant side effects and did not usually work very well. Paul Erlich thought there might be a better way. His idea of a “magic bullet” that selectively targets only disease-causing microbes, and not the human housing those microbes, was based on scientists noticing that aniline and other synthetic dyes, which first were produced in the late 1800s, could stain some specific microbes but not others. Paul Ehrlich argued that special chemical compounds could be created which would “be able to exert their full action exclusively on the parasite harbored within the organism.“  This idea of Erlich’s led him to begin a large-scale and systematic screening program (as we would call it today) in 1904 to find a drug against syphilis.

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Real Facts From Episode 203

While The Knick is a work of fiction, it is based on exhaustive historical research. Below, the show’s writers share some of the true facts of the era that are depicted in this episode.

Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Harriman all put money toward eugenics research. At the turn of the Century, Eugenics was viewed as an “emerging science,” an offshoot of Darwin’s theories on evolution, and a new way to understand human beings. (Image courtesy of the Burns Archive.)

Syphilis spirochete is called Treponema Pallidum. It is fairly unmistakable in appearance (it looks a lot like a ramen noodle). Thackery’s understanding of a fever’s impact on syphilis is mostly due to the work of Austrian psychiatrist, Julius Wagner Jauregg (1857-1940).

Jauregg saw a woman with severe psychosis recover after a bout of Erysipelas, a bacterial skin disease that causes high fevers. He began experimenting with tuberculin-induced fevers. After several patients died under such treatment, he stopped his experiment, only to start up again after 1900. Then in the post-WWI era, Jaurgegg switched to using Malaria to try and cure patients with Neurosyphilis. He went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1927 for his work. (Image courtesy of the Burns Archive.)

In 1900 Mount Sinai Hospital purchased an X-Ray Machine and set it up in their synagogue. )

Huber’s Palace was an establishment that housed stages for performances, exotic animals, and “freak acts” like “The Dog-Faced Boy.” Huber’s motto was “A dollar show for ten cents.”