Thursday, September 28, 2023

It’s not Finding What’s Always Been There But Realizing What You’ve Got

Alexander Flemming in his Laboratory at St. Mary's Hospital, London.

On September 28, 1924 Dr. Alexander Fleming, a Scottish physician and researcher, stumbled on one of the most significant accidental discoveries in scientific history—and was smart enough to understand what it meant. 

Fleming was born to middling farmers on August 6, 1881 at Lochfield, a farm near Darvel in Ayrshire, Scotland.  Although he got excellent marks in school, and small scholarships allowed him to enroll at the Royal Polytechnic Institution for studies in biology, he was unable to continue his education and worked as a shipping clerk for some years before a small inheritance allowed him to enroll in medical school at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London.  He graduated with honors in 1906 qualified as a surgeon.

Instead of going into practice as a surgeon, however, Fleming was encouraged to join the research department at St Mary’s, as assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology. He earned an M.B. degree and then a B.Sc. with Gold Medal in 1908. He stayed at St. Mary’s as a lecturer in biology until the War broke out in 1914.

As a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Fleming served with distinction and was cited for bravery in advanced field hospitals on the Western Front.  At War’s end he returned to St. Mary’s determined to find antibacterial agents.

Flemming's contaminated culture--a blob of mold, left, killed the bacteria near it.

That day in 1924 the 43 year old doctor had returned to his basement laboratory at St Marys after a long holiday with his family in Scotland.  He had left a pile of petri dishes containing bacteria samples on a laboratory bench having forgotten to refrigerate them.  He was going to discard the ruined samples when he noticed the bacteria in one dish were being killed by an invading grey/green fungus.  Fleming, who had been actively looking for anti-bacterial agents since his World War  I  time service in France where he saw many men lose limbs or their lives to septicemia from infected wounds,  understood that something in that fungus could kill bacteria.

Fleming first called the substance that killed the bacteria simply mold juice. After some difficulty, he identified the mold as a member of the Penicillium genus and named the substance penicillin when he published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929.

He found penicillin very difficult to produce and despaired that it could be produced in sufficient quantities to become important in treating infections.  He did recognize that if penicillin were used in insufficient concentrations or over too short a period of time, that the bacteria evolved to become resistant to the serum.  He also identified many bacterial organisms against which it was effective, including those that caused scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, and gonorrhea but not infections like typhoid fever.  Fleming therefore cautioned that if used, it must only be applied to those illnesses for which it was proven effective and in sufficient strength of and then only in sufficiently high doses over an extended period of time in order to prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacterial strains.

As Fleming continued his research into the 1930’s he became further discouraged.  He was applying penicillin primarily as a topical application to open wounds.  He began to fear that the serum would not live long enough in the body to become effective against deep infections.  Later, he began to experience better results, but without a method of producing the anti-biotic in mass quantity, he abandoned his research and turned to trying to find other agents.

Fleming (center) receiving the Nobel prize from King Gustaf V of Sweden  in 1945 as Ernst Chain and Howard Florey wait their turn.

In 1939 German born Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Florey at Oxford University took up where Fleming had left off.  They discovered penicillin’s chemical composition and accurately predicted the physical structure of its molecule.  With a new war, both the British and U.S. governments poured money into research which led to mass production techniques.  By the time of the D-Day invasion enough penicillin was available to treat all of the Allied injured.  By the end of the war it was available worldwide.

In honor of their work Fleming, Chain, and Florey shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Penicillin slashed death from infected wounds and battled venereal disease in World War II.

More research has developed other penicillin-like drugs.  By mid-century the infectious diseases that had been some of humanities most persistent killers, were controllable.

Fleming died, full of honors, on March 11, 1955 in London at the age of 73.  He did not live to see his often expressed dire warnings about the emergence of drug resistant bacteria come fully to reality.  Years of routine over-prescription of penicillin and related antibiotics have led to the development of resistant superbugs which could possibly threaten new, widespread epidemics.


Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Train Wreck Ballad That Became Country Music’s First Hit


The wreck of the Fast Mail not only inspired the song, but this dramatic painting by rationalist master Thomas Hart Benton.

There seems to be something about a train wreck that inspires a song.  Just about everybody knows Casey Jones.  Just two years after the disaster that inspired that tune, the Southern Railroad express known as the Fast Mail came barreling down a steep grade at a high rate of speed and overshot a tight radius turn right before a trestle sending the engine and train to a spectacular fiery crash at the bottom of a steep ravine.

Within 24 hours a witness/rescuer at the scene had penned a ballad set to the melody of a popular fiddle tune, The Ship That Never Returned, the same tune used later for Charley on the MTA.  Just who that person was later became a matter of great controversy and an epic lawsuit.

The Fast Mail, designated as No. 97, ran on contract with the Post Office for service from Washington, DC to New Orleans via Atlanta.  That made it one of the highest volume mail trains in the South.  To encourage on time performance the contract included penalties for each minute the train arrived behind schedule at several stops along the route, including Spencer, North Carolina.  Railroad officials regularly pressured train crews to make up for lost time to avoid the penalties.  As a result, engineers often operated trains well above designated speeds.

The need for speed had contributed to a fatal accident in April of 1903 when the engine smashed into a boulder on the tracks near Lexington, North Carolina derailing the train and killing the engineer and fireman.

On September 27 that same year a brand new Baldwin ten wheel 6-5-0 engine, #1102, which had been delivered just a week earlier was hooked up to No. 97.  For some reason, the train was already running behind schedule when it left Washington.  It rolled into Monroe, Virginia, a division point where train crews were changed, a full hour late.  The new engineer, 33 year old Joseph A. Broady, known to his friends and crew as Steve Broady, was handed orders to make up the time before the next Post Office penalty point at Spencer.  He was told to skip one regular junction stop entirely.  Although not explicitly ordered to go over the average 35 miles per hour limit between Monroe and Spencer, his bosses knew that he would have to exceed that.

Besides Broady the crew included fireman A.C. Clapp, and apprentice fireman John Hodge, conductor John Blair, and flagman James Robert Moody.  Also on board were express messenger W. R. Pinckney and 11 mail clerks.  Safe locker Wentworth Armistead boarded the train at Lynchburg, Virginia making a total of 18 men on board.

The Mail Clerks, express messenger and Armistead were all in the Post Office car attached directly behind the tender and ahead of the freight cars.

The scheduled running time for the 166 miles from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes, an average speed of approximately 39 mph.  To make up the one hour delay, Broady would have to run at an average 51 mph over track known for its steep grades and tight curves.  Witnesses thought he was running at least 55 mph on the downgrade headed into the 45-foot high Stillhouse Trestle.  Broady applied his brakes but could not reduce his speed enough to make the sharp curve leading to the bridge.  

The Baldwin engine and ruins of the burnt out train at the bottom of the ravine next to the trestle surrounded by gawkers, including a large knot of women just to the right of the engine. 

The engine sailed off the track smashing to the bottom of the gorge next to the trestle.  Fire quickly spread and burned out of control completely consuming all the wooden cars and almost all the mail.  A crate of live canaries broke open in the crash and the birds escaped before the fire consumed the car.  Many lingered in the area and became an odd reminder of the crash.

Eleven men died in the crash, including all the train crew.  The two firemen were burned beyond recognition, and it was impossible to determine which body was whose.  Most of the 7 survivors were injured but survived because they jumped from or were thrown from the wreck.  The distraught express messenger went home and immediately resigned.  Some of the surviving mail clerks did return to service, though none again on the Fast Mail.

Engine #1102 was salvaged, repaired, and put back in service.  It ran for 32 more years before the Southern scraped it in 1935.

The railroad, of course, placed all the blame on the engineer, and even issued a report exaggerating his speed.  They never acknowledged any culpability for issuing the orders that made speeding inevitable.

The Fast Mail continued to run until 1907 when service was canceled in a re-alignment of mail contracts.

Fred Jackson Lewey was one of the first on the scene of the wreck and reported that he wrote a poem about it the next day.  Fiddler Charles Noell tinkered with the lyrics and fit them to the tune of The Ship That Never Returned.  

Among the many local residents who flocked to the scene of the accident to assist in rescue efforts was Fred Jackson Lewey who worked at a cotton mill near the base of the trestle and who was the cousin of fireman Clapp.  He said he sat down and wrote lyrics the day after the wreck.  His friend Charles Noell contributed to the words and suggested the tune.  The Wreck of the Old 97 was widely played in the area and became a standard at barn dances across the South in the next 20 years.

The first recording was made for Victor by the nearly blind primitive fiddle player G.B. Grayson and his partner Henry Whitter who played guitar, harmonica, and sang.  Whitter also altered the lyrics.

                                                  Vernon Dalhart's smash hit recording of The Wreck of the Old 97.

Not long after that in 1924 Vernon Dalhart sold more than seven million copies and his version became the bestselling non-holiday recording of the first 70 years of the recording industry.  It is the record that is usually cited for the birth of successful commercial country music.

Success like that often brings people out of the woodwork claiming a piece of the pie.  In 1927 David G. George, a former brakeman, railroad telegrapher, and weekend musician claimed that he was on the scene for the rescue efforts and penned the original lyrics himself.  He sued Victor and won a judgment for past royalties from Victor $65,295.  The company appealed three times, losing each time until the case got to the Supreme Court, which overturned the judgment.

Today experts are divided between the conflicting claims but most side with Lewey and Noell.

The Virginia state historical marker near the site of the wreck.

The song has become a staple of country music, bluegrass, and the folk revival.  It has been covered scores, maybe hundreds of times by artists as diverse as Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Flatt & Scruggs, Charlie Louvin, The Seekers, Carolyn Hester, Hank Snow, Box Car Willie, Johnny Cash, Patrick Sky, and Nine Pound Hammer.