Recently I read a Nature article "Great myths die hard". What struck me hard was, how much of wrong information and false credits are taught. So, I started digging multiple stories especially one's related to Microbiology. This blog post is more of a easy read compared to usual geeky stuff. I have carefully looked into various available literature and complied data.
Before I talk about the hoax associated with Joseph Mister, I want to say the story simply cause it is really interesting (and true).
Story 1: Joseph mister suicided protecting Pasteur's crypt
Photo 1: Louis Pasteur
Every student of biology probably knows "Louis pasteur". The story goes that Charles Chamberland assistant of Pasteur was instructed to inoculate the chickens with a chicken cholera pathogen when Pasteur went on holiday. Instead of following the orders, he went on a hoilday himself. When they were back the culture of bacteria had become very weak. When inoculated to chickens it no more produced infection. According to some sources when he inoculated again, they didn't produce any disease, and it was assumed that they gained immunity. This formed the basis of vaccination. Chamberland assumed an error had been made, and he wanted to discard the apparently faulty culture but Pasteur stopped him from doing so.
Louis, then did some similar experiments with Rabies. Finally he concluded that he could prevent the disease in dogs. However he was not ready to test in human volunteers. Note a point here. There is a great deal of literature which credits Emile Roux, a colleague of Pasteur to have actually developed the first killed rabies vaccine. Joseph Meister, was brought to him by his upset mother. It was told that Joseph had been bitten many times by a rabid dog in his village, and she begged Louis to try to save her son. This was the best opportunity for Louis, since if the vaccine failed, he would not be blamed for Joseph's death, but if Louis did nothing, Joseph was likely to die anyway. Reference
Photo 2: Joseph Meister
On 6 July, 1885, the vaccine was tried for first time on Joseph mister and the results were better than expected. He survived. Meister was actually given 13 injections. News of the boy’s recovery spread quickly and within months Pasteur had treated 726 successful cases. As the boy grew he was summoned multiple times by Pasteur and repeatedly challenged with virus for public demonstrations. In return he was given some favors and worked as a caretaker at pasteur institute for which he was paid. Till this part of the story, everything is true.
Almost anywhere you look, you would find something like this
"Meister survived and in later life became the caretaker of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. When Nazi invaders in 1940 ordered him to open Pasteur's crypt, which lies within the Institute, Meister preferred to kill himself." This was supposed to have happened on 14 June or 16 June, just after the German invasion of France.
Thats the hoax part. Mister didn't kill himself trying to protect the Pasteur's crypt. What actually happened is as follows (copied from Nature article)
"Meister apparently believed that his family had perished in enemy bombing, and was overwhelmed with guilt for having sent them away. In the chaos of France’s collapse, it was almost impossible to get news from loved ones, so Meister was unaware that they were safe. His wife and daughters actually returned later on the very day that he killed himself". Oh, the suicide part is the only right thing in the story.
Story 2: Alexander Fleming Discovery and Development of Penicillin
Photo 3: Sir Alexander Fleming
The most common we teach microbiology students, Alexander Fleming discovered Penicllin. The story goes that the Alexander Fleming had a very dirty room and when he returned from a holiday on on September 3, 1928 he saw was staphylococcus colonies was inhibited from growing around a mold which was later identified as Penicillium notatum. He even identified that the extract of the mold called as "mold Juice" was able to inhibit bacteria, such as streptococcus, meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. His assistants, Stuart Craddock and Frederick Ridley, were put on task of isolating pure penicillin from the mold juice. From his early papers it is very evident, he didn't consider penicillin as a serious compound. His original paper was published in June 1929.
In fact several prestigious people (such as Harold Raistrick, Professor of Biochemistry at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) tried isolating the compound. Fleming had actually quit trying to purify penicillin to pursue other important research. The actual work was pursued by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and their colleagues at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University in 1939. Later a remarkable study by Florey in 1940 showing that penicillin could protect mice against infection from deadly Streptococci became the first step. On February 12, 1941, a 43-year old policeman, Albert Alexander, became the first recipient of the Oxford penicillin. And it was the biochemist Norman Heatley and Edward Abraham who developed techniques for mass production of penicillin. Reference
By no standards, Sir Alexander Fleming purify, dicover and develop Penicllin, though he can be credited of having made a simple observation that something exists. But he cashed in on nobel prize.
Story 3: Robert Koch and his postulates
Photo 4: Robert Koch
There is no second argument about the contributions of Robert Koch. What we often teach students is that Koch laid postulates to conclusively say that a specific organism is the pathogenic etiology. Every text book says this (Except Stanier's General microbiology, from where I came to know about this first). The postulates was originally laid down by J Henle about 36 years before Koch applied it. However, Koch was the first to apply it on a massive scale and hence called as Koch's postulates. Thats exactly the reason why if you had see some very old original papers they are referred as Henle-Koch postulates.
Story 4: Kary Mullis invented PCR
Photo 5: Kary Mullis
This is one of the most important story that I keep telling the students. I got the following from Nobel prize website (Link). "So I'm going to try to explain how it was that I invented the polymerase chain reaction". He explains in the page of how he was driving with his girlfriend and thought all about it and finally Taq polymerase emerged as the perfect tool. Either he was totally unaware of Dr. Gobind Khorana's work or he was faking his claims. Even before Mullis had thought about amplifying the DNA, Khorana had used this methodology for studying nucleic acids. There are enough papers written by him to support this fact. The difference was he manually did the procedure using a thermolabile- polymerase that had to be added every cycle. So technically speaking, Mullis tweaked the original idea and just replaced it with Taq Polymerase.
|Photo 6: Dr. Khorana|
The following is a quote from the book
Methods in Molecular Biology, Vol. 226: PCR Protocols, Second Edition Edited by: J. M. S. Bartlett and D. Stirling © Humana Press Inc., Totowa, NJ. Page 13
"Dr. Khorana’s method, which he called “repair replication,” involved the steps of the following: (1) extension from a primer annealed to a template; (2) separating strands; and (3) reannealing of primers to template to repeat the cycle. Dr. Khorana did not patent this work. Instead he dedicated it to the public. Unfortunately, at the time that Dr. Khorana discovered his amplification process, it was not practical to use the method for nucleic acid amplification, and the technique did not take off as a commercial method."
Mullis has by no grounds invented PCR (The methodology itself I mean). But he can be credited of improving the technique by using thermostable polymerase. Need I say more?
The original nature paper that inspired me to write this post also mentions of John Snow’s ending of London’s 1854 cholera outbreak, Joseph Lister’s development of antiseptic surgery as myths. I probably need sometime to gain some data on that. However, 4 stories above enlightens you that many stories are not true, even if it is in the literature. Myths are spontaneously or deliberately created and many hoax are credited.
Dufour HD, & Carroll SB (2013). History: Great myths die hard. Nature, 502 (7469), 32-3 PMID: 24137644