Antibiotics: The Miracles We Take For Granted

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We’ve been fighting ear infections and strep throat at our house. One child has finished his round of antibiotics and a second one started.

I admit, though, I was more concerned about our messed up schedule than I was for their long-term health. Yet, less than 100 years ago, those same illnesses could mean serious, life-long health problems or death.

I take antibiotics for granted.

Antibiotics are relatively new in human history. They were accidentally discovered in the late 1920s, but not mass-produced until World War II. Since then, antibiotics have worked so well and been around just long enough that most of us Westerners don’t have living memory of life/sickness/fear before antibiotics. Things we consider nuisances now, such as scratches or ear infections, were literally a matter of life and death when our grandparents were children.

To get a glimpse at how frightened we’d be without antibiotics, just watch the news reports from Africa of the Ebola outbreak, the lack of treatment for everyone, and the mistrust of available healthcare.

Another way to “remember” how frightening illnesses could be is to read biographies, old letters and diaries, historical fiction, and classic literature. For example, more than one of Jane Austen’s heroines were in serious danger from getting chilled by walking in the rain. And Mary in the Little House books had a severe illness which left her blind.

I know we have overused antibiotics and are now are dealing with bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. And I know many people have compromised immune systems and live in fear of “minor” infections. I’m also glad we’ve learned about “good” bacteria and the need for exposure to some bacteria to strengthen our immune systems.

But, I’m thankful for antibiotics.

For more information about the history of antibiotics:

The Real Story Behind Penicillin

Antibiotics

The History of Antibiotics

Who are some historical people who died because they didn’t have antibiotics? What are some classic or historical fiction novels that would be very different if the characters would’ve had antibiotics? Have you been saved by antibiotics from possible death?

4 comments

  1. Patricia A Miller

    Historical people who died because of a lack of antibiotics… those in the U.S. Civil War come to mind first. So many had amputations or bullet wounds without the benefit of antibiotics.

    • Patricia A Miller

      I don’t think they had stronger immune systems. After all, look at the death rate of infants. We went to the George Washington Carver national park near Joplin, MO this past weekend. There is a family cemetery that has about 10 children who died, mostly as infants. And G.W. Carver almost died from whooping cough (I think) when he was a baby.

      The sanitary conditions during the Civil War were so lacking. Those who advocated for better conditions were ridiculed – I’m thinking of Clara Barton among others. One website: http://www.civilwar.org/education/pdfs/civil-was-curriculum-medicine.pdf says that of the 620,000 men who died during the war, two-thirds of them died from disease and not from their wounds.

      • Deb Watley

        Wow! That is an amazing and informative website! I’ve heard similar percentages, about deaths due to disease, for American soldiers in other wars, especially The Mexican-American War, The Spanish-American War, and WWI. It’s amazing any soldiers survived.

        Years ago I read a book of letters between an Iowa doctor, who enlisted as soldier in the Union Army, and his wife. He often wrote her about how sick men in his company were and how the lack of good food and the bad camping conditions led to much of it. Too bad he didn’t enlist as a doctor. Maybe he thought he could strike a better blow for freedom as a soldier.

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