Broadcast: March 30, 2004
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week, learn about some medical heroes.
The French chemist Marie Curie was the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes. The first was in physics, the second in chemistry. Marie Curie worked to increase the understanding of radioactivity. She discovered the highly radioactive element radium. She also helped develop the use of X-rays during the First World War.
Marie Curie was born in Poland in eighteen-sixty-seven. She worked with her husband, Pierre. Both handled radioactive materials for years without protection. As a result, both suffered health problems. Pierre was killed in a road accident in nineteen-oh-six. Marie Curie died in nineteen-thirty-four of a blood disorder caused by radiation.
Their daughter Irene also won a Nobel Prize for discoveries with her husband about radiation. She died of leukemia, cancer of the blood.
At the start of the twentieth century, the United States Army had a Yellow Fever Commission. The Army wanted medical experts to study yellow fever and find a way to stop the disease. One team worked in Cuba to test the idea that mosquitoes spread yellow fever. In August of nineteen-hundred, the group began to raise mosquitoes and infect them with the virus.
Nine Americans permitted the infected insects to bite them. Nothing happened. Then two more let the mosquitoes bite them. Both men developed yellow fever.
A doctor named Jesse William Lazear recognized something. The mosquitoes that had bitten the last two men had been older than the others. Doctor Lazear proved that mosquitoes did carry yellow fever. However, he too was bitten and died.
No one is sure just how Doctor Lazear was bitten. He said it happened accidentally as he treated others. Some said he placed the mosquito on his arm as part of the experiment. Medical historians say he may have reported the bite as an accident so his family could get his life insurance money.
The team in Cuba was led by Walter Reed, the Army doctor and scientist noted for his work on infectious diseases. The death of Doctor Lazear shocked Walter Reed and the others on the team. But they continued with their work.
More people let themselves be bitten by mosquitoes. Others were injected with blood from victims of yellow fever. Some people in this test group developed the disease, but all recovered to full health.
Members of the research group praised the work by Jesse Lazear. They called it a sacrifice to research that led the way to one of the greatest medical discoveries of the century.
The research had answered the question of how yellow fever spread. Now the question was how to protect people. The researchers had a theory. They thought that people who were bitten by infected mosquitoes, but recovered, were protected in the future.
To test this idea, the team in Cuba offered one-hundred dollars to anyone who would agree to be bitten by infected mosquitoes. Nineteen people agreed. The only American was Clara Maass. She was a nurse who worked with yellow fever patients in Cuba.
Clara Maass was bitten by infected mosquitoes seven times between March and August of nineteen-oh-one. Only one of the nineteen people developed the disease until that August. Then, in that month, seven people got yellow fever. Clara Maass died six days after she was bitten for the seventh time.
Cuba and the United States both made postage stamps in honor of Clara Maass. Today, a hospital in her home state of New Jersey is called the Clara Maass Medical Center.
The experiment showed that the bite of an infected mosquito is not a safe way to protect people from yellow fever. Medical historians say the death of Clara Maass also created a public protest. This reaction ended experiments with humans in yellow fever research.
Joseph Goldberger was a doctor for the United States Public Health Service. In nineteen-twelve, he began to study a skin disease that was killing thousands of people in the American South. The disease was pellagra.
Doctor Goldberger traveled to the state of Mississippi where many people suffered from pellagra. He studied the victims and their families. Most of the victims were poor. The doctor came to believe that the disease was not infectious, but instead related to diet.
He received permission from the state governor to test this idea at a prison. Prisoners were offered pardons if they took part. One group of prisoners received their usual foods, mostly corn products. A second group ate meat, fresh vegetables and milk. Members of the first group developed pellagra. The second group did not.
But other medical researchers dismissed the findings. For the South, pellagra was more than simply a medical problem. There were other issues involved, including Southern pride.
So Doctor Goldberger had himself injected with blood from a person with pellagra. He also took liquid from the nose and throat of a pellagra patient and put them into his own nose and throat. He even swallowed pills that contained skin from pellagra patients.
An assistant also took part in the experiments. So did Doctor Goldberger's wife. No one got sick. Later, the doctor discovered that a small amount of dried brewer's yeast each day could prevent pellagra.
Joseph Goldberger died of cancer in nineteen-twenty-nine. He was fifty-five years old. Several years later, researchers discovered the exact cause of pellagra: a lack of the B vitamin known as niacin.
Doctor Matthew Lukwiya died of the Ebola virus in December of two-thousand. He was the medical administrator of Saint Mary’s Hospital in the Gulu District of northern Uganda. The hospital was the center of treatment for an outbreak of Ebola. The virus causes severe bleeding. There is no cure. Health workers can only hope that victims are strong enough to survive.
Doctor Lukwiya acted quickly to control the spread of infection. He kept the people with Ebola separate from the other patients. He ordered hospital workers to dress in protective clothes.
One day he had to deal with a patient who was dying of Ebola. The man had been acting out of control. Doctor Lukwiya knew him well. The patient was a nurse who worked at the hospital. He was coughing and bleeding. Doctor Lukwiya violated one of his own rules. He wore no protection over his eyes.
Ugandans mourned the death of Doctor Lukwiya. He was forty-two years old. Saint Mary's is one of the best hospitals in east Africa. Matthew Lukwiya was an important influence in the community. Medical experts say his work during the outbreak in two-thousand helped stop the Ebola virus from spreading out of control.
Our final medical hero is Carlo Urbani. He was a disease expert from Italy. He worked in Vietnam for the World Health Organization.
On February twenty-eighth, two-thousand-three, the Vietnam-France Hospital in Hanoi asked for help to deal with an unusual infection. Doctor Urbani recognized it as a new threat. He made sure other hospitals increased their infection-control measures.
On March eleventh, Doctor Urbani developed signs of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Four days later, the World Health Organization declared it a worldwide health threat.
Carlo Urbani was the first doctor to warn the world of the pneumonia we now know as SARS. He died of it on March twenty-ninth, two-thousand-three. He was forty-six years old.
Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. This is Bob Doughty.
And this is Faith Lapidus. Listen again next week for more SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English.