Gisella Perl was Romanian and Jewish. She was a gynaecologist at a time and place where very few women went into the medical professions. In 1944, she and her entire family were shipped off to Auschwitz, where Perl was instructed to provide medical care for her fellow inmates — medical care that was supposed to happen without even the most basic medical supplies.
In this position, she was officially employed by Josef Mengele, and she saw what happened to women who entered Auschwitz while pregnant. The short answer was death. The long answer was that those deaths were often horrifying and drawn-out. So Gisella Perl gave herself a new job — protecting women by helping them hide evidence of pregnancy and by performing abortions with her bare hands.
Today, we are desperately trying to figure out how to combat and keep up with antibiotic resistance — the frustrating tendency for bacteria to evolve defenses against the drugs we depend on to kill them. Seventy years ago, researchers were faced with a very different problem — how to take penicillin, the antibiotic derived from mold, and turn it into something that could be produced in large quantities.
At The Body Horrors blog, Rebecca Kreston writes about this quest and how a single moldy cantaloupe helped launch the (unfortunately) brief era of antibiotic supremacy.
For something that grows so carelessly and freely on our fruits and breads, mass producing the white mold and its hidden wonder drug penicillin was devilishly difficult. After Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of a bacteria-killing mold contaminating his cultures of Staphylococcus aureus, it languished as a laboratory parlor trick until World War II and the desperate need for treatments to fight bacterial infections became quickly apparent
It would be another fluke – the discovery of a moldy cantaloupe - that would yield a particular strain of mold that could produce prodigious amounts of this “magic bullet” antibiotic. Factories with the expert know-how on man-handling yeast and fungi into yielding their strange fruits - alcohol distilleries and mushroom factories – were then tasked with the production of penicillin
I particularly dig this video she posted with the story, showing a behind-the-scenes look at how large quantities of penicillin were made during World War II.
This drawing was made on a file card by John Paton Davies, second secretary of the American embassy in Chungking, China, in 1943, just after Davies and 20 other men had parachuted from a floundering C-46 transport plane into a remote region of Burma (Myanmar).
It was part of Davies' attempt to communicate with the Naga, the native Burmese who found him and his compatriots after their plane crashed. The problem: None of the Americans spoke Naga. And the Naga spoke neither English, nor Chinese. Meanwhile, Davies and company were terrified of the Naga, who had a reputation for headhunting. Hilarity ensued.
Trying to determine where signs of western civilization might be, he sketched a locomotive with cars and uttered “choo-choo, chuff-chuff.” The response was “blank incomprehension.” Next he drew a Japanese flag and tried to vocalize the sound of battle. Again, there was no understanding. He also drew British and American flags and outposts in an effort to determine where his group might find assistance and rescue. Davies’ jots also included men parachuting from airplanes, perhaps his way of communicating to the Nagas how he and his men had arrived in their company.
The Nagas’ reaction to Davies’ written and oral efforts was impassive attention, but, significantly, not hostility. The Nagas led the men to their village, and the fear Davies felt when one of the tribesman made a cutting motion across his throat was relieved when the victim ended up being a goat that was sacrificed for a banquet.