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Scottish surgeon cured bacterial infection before Pasteur


An expert at the University of Sheffield has published a paper that dispels the popular belief that Louis Pasteur was the first person to demonstrate the connection between infective agents and disease in the 1860s.

Dr. Milton Wainwright’s research, published in Advances in Applied Microbiology, has uncovered various references that suggest that Greek and Italian physicians had made the link between bacteria and disease before the birth of Christ. He also found that Louis Pasteur wasn’t even the first person to successfully recognise and treat a bacterial infection, and that the honour should go to a surgeon called John Goodsir.

Dr Wainwright explains, “The common belief is that before Louis Pasteur people believed that disease was caused by foul smelling air, or miasma. However, it seems that even before the birth of Christ some physicians had concluded that disease could be caused by small animals which ‘enter the nostrils and cause distempers’.

“By the mid 1500s there are references showing that some doctors believed that particles, rather than gases, spread disease and by the 1700s the theory that microscopic animals (microbes) caused disease was so well known that it was the subject of a number of plays. In the Devil on Two Sticks, author Samuel Foote gave his audience an almost perfect description of how germs cause illness and even said that the blood of an infected person contains ‘piscatory entities’ swimming and tossing around like fish, which is a good description of bacteria.

“In 1842 John Goodsir, a Scottish surgeon, showed that stomach upsets with vomiting were caused by bacteria. He then took his work a step further by finding that the bacteria, and with it the disease, could be eliminated using selective poisons. He therefore deserves recognition as the first person to successfully recognise and treat a bacterial infection.

“Pasteur was a great scientist, but the assumption that he was the first person to recognise that germs cause disease is a fallacy and does early physicians injustice. I am pleased to be able to correct this mistake and hope to restore to John Goodsir his rightful place in medical history.”

Lorna Branton | alfa
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