...and don’t let the bed-bugs bite. In the last century, as it advanced, people on either side of the Atlantic came to think that modern ways had really managed to rid humanity of certain evils, once and for all. Semmelweis had taught doctors to wash their hands and banished puerperal fever. Koch discovered the cause of tuberculosis in 1882, a graduate student, Albert Schatz, isolated streptomycin in 1943, and it was shown to cure TB by 1947. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) had been synthesized in 1847; its insecticidal properties were discovered in 1939 when I was three; we were virtually covered with the white powder during World War II to rid us of head-lice, if present; and it did for bed-bugs too. When we arrived in the United States in 1951, infantile paralysis, polio, was still a curse, and we frequently saw those it had afflicted. A year later Salk developed a vaccine, and mass immunizations were underway by 1955. No. It wasn’t difficult to believe in progress in the twentieth century. Signs of it manifested everywhere.
A few years ago, working on a multi-volume essay series at ECDI, we became aware of some strange developments. Among these were isolated outbreaks of TB again, and even documented but fortunately tiny outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Peru in 1994. (Checking on this fact today, I discovered that another outbreak had been noted this year.) We learned that the pharmaceutical industry was not investing much, if anything, into the continued control of diseases that have been “dealt with” once and for all—but variants of the causing bacteria have evolved. DDT was banned in agricultural use; it produces cancer. And the bedbug is back. What goes around...comes back? Curves that rise...also go down? I wonder. Are doctors still washing their hands?