Some History Involving The Massachusetts General Hospital

Taken from The Evolution of Modern Medicine by Dr. William Osler © 2009 through Kaplan Publishing, New York.

“The end of the fifth decade [of the 19th century] is marked by a discovery of superme importance.  Humphry Davy had noted the effects of nitrous oxide.  The exhilarating influence of sulphuric ether had been casually studied, and Long of Georgia had made patients inhale the vapor until anaesthetic and had performed operations upon them when in this state; but it was not unitil October 16, 1846, in the Massachusetts General Hospital, that Morton, in a public operating room, rendered a patient insensible with ether and demonstrated the utility of surgical anaesthesia.  The rival claims of priority no longer interest us, but the occasion is one of the most memorable in the history of the race.  It is well that our colleagues celebrate Ether Day in Boston — no more precious boon has ever been granted to suffering humanity.

“In 1857, a young man, Louis Pasteur, sent to the Lille Scientific Society a paper on “Lactic Acid Fermentation” and in December of the same year presented to the Academy of Sciences in Paris a paper on “Alcoholic fermentation” in which he concluded that “the deduplication of sugar into alcohol and carbonic acid is correlative to a phenomenon of life.”  A new era in medicine dates from those two publications.  The story of Pasteur’s life should be read by every student.  It is one of the glories of human literature, and, as a record of achievement and of nobility of character, is almost without an equal.

“At the middle of the last century [20th] we did not know much more of the actual causes of the great scourges of the race, the plagues, the fevers and the pestilences, than did the Greeks.  Here comes Pasteur’s great work.  Before him Egyptians darkness; with his advent a light that brightens more and more as the years give us ever fuller knowledge.  The facts that fevers were catching, that epidemics spread, that infection could remain attached to articles of clothing, etc., all gave support to the view that the actual cause was something alive, a contagion vivum.  It was really a very old view, the germs of which may be found in the Fathers, but which was first clearly expressed–so far as I know–by Fracastorius, the Veronese physician, in the sixteenth century, who spoke of the seeds of contagion passing from one person to another; and he first drew a parallet between the processes of contagion and the fermentation of wine.  This was more than one hundred years befor Kircher, Leeuwenhock and others began to use the microscope and to see animalcula, etc., in water, and so give a basis for the “infinitely little” view of the nature of disease germs.  And it was a study of the processes of fermentation that led Pasteur to the sure ground on which we now stand.”

This leads me to ask: Is diabetes due to a germ, an ‘animalcula?

As history repeats itself, I find this passage hopeful toward the cure of diabetes. As Massachusetts General Hospital is renowned for its research – among many other research facilities – it may be in the history books again with the cure!  I look forward to and await its arrival.

Cordially, A. K. Buckroth



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