If you had lived one hundred years ago, syphilis – a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact – would likely have been one of your worst nightmares. Even though syphilis still exists, it can now be detected early and cured quickly with a course of antibiotics. Back then, however, before antibiotics and without an easy way to detect the disease, syphilis was very often a death sentence.
To understand how feared syphilis once was, it’s important to understand exactly what it does if it’s allowed to progress: the infections start off as small, painless sores or even a single sore near the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth. The sores disappear around three to six weeks after the initial infection – but untreated, syphilis moves into a secondary stage, often presenting as a mild rash in various areas of the body (such as the palms of a person’s hands) or through other minor symptoms. The disease progresses from there, often quietly and without noticeable symptoms, sometimes for decades before it reaches its final stages, where it can cause blindness, organ damage, and even dementia. Research indicates, in fact, that as much as 10 percent of psychiatric admissions in the early 20th century were due to dementia caused by syphilis, also known as neurosyphilis.
Like any bacterial disease, syphilis can affect kids, too. Though it’s spread primarily through sexual contact, it can also be transmitted from mother to child during birth, causing lifelong disability.
The poet-physician Aldabert Bettman, who wrote fictionalized poems based on his experiences as a doctor in the 1930s, described the effect syphilis could have on an infant in his poem Daniel Healy:
I always got away clean
when I went out
With the boys.
The night before
I was married
I went out,—But was not so fortunate;
And I infected
When little Daniel
His eyes discharged;
And I dared not tell
I had seen too much
Little Daniel sees not at all
Given the horrors of untreated syphilis, it’s maybe not surprising that people would go to extremes to try and treat it. One of the earliest remedies for syphilis, dating back to 15th century Naples, was using mercury – either rubbing it on the skin where blisters appeared, or breathing it in as a vapor. (Not surprisingly, many people who underwent this type of “treatment” died of mercury poisoning.)
Other primitive treatments included using tinctures made of a flowering plant called guaiacum, as well as inducing “sweat baths” to eliminate the syphilitic toxins. In 1910, an arsenic-based drug called Salvarsan hit the market and was hailed as a “magic bullet” for its ability to target and destroy the syphilis-causing bacteria without harming the patient. However, while Salvarsan was effective in treating early-stage syphilis, it was largely ineffective by the time the infection progressed beyond the second stage. Tens of thousands of people each year continued to die of syphilis or were otherwise shipped off to psychiatric wards due to neurosyphilis.
It was in one of these psychiatric units in the early 20th century that Dr. Julius Wagner-Juaregg got the idea for a potential cure.
Wagner-Juaregg was an Austrian-born physician trained in “experimental pathology” at the University of Vienna. Wagner-Juaregg started his medical career conducting lab experiments on animals and then moved on to work at different psychiatric clinics in Vienna, despite having no training in psychiatry or neurology.
Wagner-Juaregg’s work was controversial to say the least. At the time, medicine – particularly psychiatric medicine – did not have anywhere near the same rigorous ethical standards that doctors, researchers, and other scientists are bound to today. Wagner-Juaregg would devise wild theories about the cause of their psychiatric ailments and then perform experimental procedures in an attempt to cure them. (As just one example, Wagner-Juaregg would sterilize his adolescent male patients, thinking “excessive masturbation” was the cause of their schizophrenia.)
But sometimes these wild theories paid off. In 1883, during his residency, Wagner-Juaregg noted that a female patient with mental illness who had contracted a skin infection and suffered a high fever experienced a sudden (and seemingly miraculous) remission from her psychosis symptoms after the fever had cleared. Wagner-Juaregg theorized that inducing a high fever in his patients with neurosyphilis could help them recover as well.
Eventually, Wagner-Juaregg was able to put his theory to the test. Around 1890, Wagner-Juaregg got his hands on something called tuberculin, a therapeutic treatment created by the German microbiologist Robert Koch in order to cure tuberculosis. Tuberculin would later turn out to be completely ineffective for treating tuberculosis, often creating severe immune responses in patients – but for a short time, Wagner-Juaregg had some success in using tuberculin to help his dementia patients. Giving his patients tuberculin resulted in a high fever – and after completing the treatment, Wagner-Jauregg reported that his patient’s dementia was completely halted. The success was short-lived, however: Wagner-Juaregg eventually had to discontinue tuberculin as a treatment, as it began to be considered too toxic.
By 1917, Wagner-Juaregg’s theory about syphilis and fevers was becoming more credible – and one day a new opportunity presented itself when a wounded soldier, stricken with malaria and a related fever, was accidentally admitted to his psychiatric unit.
When his findings were published in 1918, Wagner-Juaregg’s so-called “fever therapy” swept the globe.
What Wagner-Juaregg did next was ethically deplorable by any standard: Before he allowed the soldier any quinine (the standard treatment for malaria at the time), Wagner-Juaregg took a small sample of the soldier’s blood and inoculated three syphilis patients with the sample, rubbing the blood on their open syphilitic blisters.
It’s unclear how well the malaria treatment worked for those three specific patients – but Wagner-Juaregg’s records show that in the span of one year, he inoculated a total of nine patients with malaria, for the sole purpose of inducing fevers, and six of them made a full recovery. Wagner-Juaregg’s treatment was so successful, in fact, that one of his inoculated patients, an actor who was unable to work due to his dementia, was eventually able to find work again and return to the stage. Two additional patients – a military officer and a clerk – recovered from their once-terminal illnesses and returned to their former careers as well.
When his findings were published in 1918, Wagner-Juaregg’s so-called “fever therapy” swept the globe. The treatment was hailed as a breakthrough – but it still had risks. Malaria itself had a mortality rate of about 15 percent at the time. Many people considered that to be a gamble worth taking, compared to dying a painful, protracted death from syphilis.
Malaria could also be effectively treated much of the time with quinine, whereas other fever-causing illnesses were not so easily treated. Triggering a fever by way of malaria specifically, therefore, became the standard of care.
Tens of thousands of people with syphilitic dementia would go on to be treated with fever therapy until the early 1940s, when a combination of Salvarsan and penicillin caused syphilis infections to decline. Eventually, neurosyphilis became rare, and then nearly unheard of.
Despite his contributions to medicine, it’s important to note that Wagner-Juaregg was most definitely not a person to idolize. In fact, he was an outspoken anti-Semite and proponent of eugenics, arguing that Jews were more prone to mental illness and that people who were mentally ill should be forcibly sterilized. (Wagner-Juaregg later became a Nazi sympathizer during Hitler’s rise to power even though, bizarrely, his first wife was Jewish.) Another problematic issue was that his fever therapy involved experimental treatments on many who, due to their cognitive issues, could not give informed consent.
Lack of consent was also a fundamental problem with the syphilis study at Tuskegee, appalling research that began just 14 years after Wagner-Juaregg published his “fever therapy” findings.
Still, despite his outrageous views, Wagner-Juaregg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1927 – and despite some egregious human rights abuses, the miraculous “fever therapy” was partly responsible for taming one of the deadliest plagues in human history.
Exactly 67 years ago, in 1955, a group of scientists and reporters gathered at the University of Michigan and waited with bated breath for Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the school’s Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, to approach the podium. The group had gathered to hear the news that seemingly everyone in the country had been anticipating for the past two years – whether the vaccine for poliomyelitis, developed by Francis’s former student Jonas Salk, was effective in preventing the disease.
Polio, at that point, had become a household name. As the highly contagious virus swept through the United States, cities closed their schools, movie theaters, swimming pools, and even churches to stop the spread. For most, polio presented as a mild illness, and was usually completely asymptomatic – but for an unlucky few, the virus took hold of the central nervous system and caused permanent paralysis of muscles in the legs, arms, and even people’s diaphragms, rendering the person unable to walk and breathe. It wasn’t uncommon to hear reports of people – mostly children – who fell sick with a flu-like virus and then, just days later, were relegated to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung.
For two years, researchers had been testing a vaccine that would hopefully be able to stop the spread of the virus and prevent the 45,000 infections each year that were keeping the nation in a chokehold. At the podium, Francis greeted the crowd and then proceeded to change the course of human history: The vaccine, he reported, was “safe, effective, and potent.” Widespread vaccination could begin in just a few weeks. The nightmare was over.
The road to success
Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist who developed the vaccine with his own research team, would rightfully go down in history as the man who eradicated polio. (Today, wild poliovirus circulates in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan – with only 140 cases reported in 2020.) But many people today forget that the widespread vaccination campaign that effectively ended wild polio across the globe would have never been possible without the human clinical trials that preceded it.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible.
The road to human clinical trials – and the resulting vaccine – was a long one. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in order to raise funding for research and development of a polio vaccine. (Today, we know this organization as the March of Dimes.) A polio survivor himself, Roosevelt elevated awareness and prevention into the national spotlight, even more so than it had been previously. Raising funds for a safe and effective polio vaccine became a cornerstone of his presidency – and the funds raked in by his foundation went primarily to Salk to fund his research.
The Trials Begin
Salk’s vaccine, which included an inactivated (killed) polio virus, was promising – but now the researchers needed test subjects to make global vaccination a possibility. Because the aim of the vaccine was to prevent paralytic polio, researchers decided that they had to test the vaccine in the population that was most vulnerable to paralysis – young children. And, because the rate of paralysis was so low even among children, the team required many children to collect enough data. Francis, who led the trial to evaluate Salk’s vaccine, began the process of recruiting more than one million school-aged children between the ages of six and nine in 272 counties that had the highest incidence of the disease. The participants were nicknamed the “Polio Pioneers.”
Double-blind, placebo-based trials were considered the “gold standard” of epidemiological research back in Francis's day - and they remain the best approach we have today. These rigorous scientific studies are designed with two participant groups in mind. One group, called the test group, receives the experimental treatment (such as a vaccine); the other group, called the control, receives an inactive treatment known as a placebo. The researchers then compare the effects of the active treatment against the effects of the placebo, and every researcher is “blinded” as to which participants receive what treatment. That way, the results aren’t tainted by any possible biases.
But the study was controversial in that only some of the individual field trials at the county and state levels had a placebo group. Researchers described this as a “calculated risk,” meaning that while there were risks involved in giving the vaccine to a large number of children, the bigger risk was the potential paralysis or death that could come with being infected by polio. In all, just 200,000 children across the US received a placebo treatment, while an additional 725,000 children acted as observational controls – in other words, researchers monitored them for signs of infection, but did not give them any treatment.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. President Roosevelt, who had made many public and televised appearances in a wheelchair, served as a perpetual reminder of the consequences of polio, as an infection at age 39 had rendered him permanently unable to walk. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible, and parents signed up their children in droves to participate in the study and offer them protection.
The Polio Pioneer Legacy
In a little less than a year, roughly half a million children received a dose of Salk’s polio vaccine. While plenty of children were hesitant to get the shot, many former participants still remember the fear surrounding the disease. One former participant, a Polio Pioneer named Debbie LaCrosse, writes of her experience: “There was no discussion, no listing of pros and cons. No amount of concern over possible side effects or other unknowns associated with a new vaccine could compare to the terrifying threat of polio.” For their participation, each kid received a certificate – and sometimes a pin – with the words “Polio Pioneer” emblazoned across the front.
When Francis announced the results of the trial on April 12, 1955, people did more than just breathe a sigh of relief – they openly celebrated, ringing church bells and flooding into the streets to embrace. Salk, who had become the face of the vaccine at that point, was instantly hailed as a national hero – and teachers around the country had their students to write him ‘thank you’ notes for his years of diligent work.
But while Salk went on to win national acclaim – even accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the polio vaccine in 1977 – his success was due in no small part to the children (and their parents) who took a risk in order to advance medical science. And that risk paid off: By the early 1960s, the yearly cases of polio in the United States had gone down to just 910. Where before the vaccine polio had caused around 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, only ten cases of paralysis were recorded in the entire country throughout the 1970s. And in 1979, the virus that once shuttered entire towns was declared officially eradicated in this country. Thanks to the efforts of these brave pioneers, the nation – along with the majority of the world – remains free of polio even today.
During the winter of 1924, Curtis Welch – the only doctor in Nome, a remote fishing town in northwest Alaska – started noticing something strange. More and more, the children of Nome were coming to his office with sore throats.
Initially, Welch dismissed the cases as tonsillitis or some run-of-the-mill virus – but when more kids started getting sick, with some even dying, he grew alarmed. It wasn’t until early 1925, after a three-year-old boy died just two weeks after becoming ill, that Welch realized that his worst suspicions were true. The boy – and dozens of other children in town – were infected with diphtheria.
A DEADLY BACTERIA
Diphtheria is nearly nonexistent and almost unheard of in industrialized countries today. But less than a century ago, diphtheria was a household name – one that struck fear in the heart of every parent, as it was extremely contagious and particularly deadly for children.
Diphtheria – a bacterial infection – is an ugly disease. When it strikes, the bacteria eats away at the healthy tissues in a patient’s respiratory tract, leaving behind a thick, gray membrane of dead tissue that covers the patient's nose, throat, and tonsils. Not only does this membrane make it very difficult for the patient to breathe and swallow, but as the bacteria spreads through the bloodstream, it causes serious harm to the heart and kidneys. It sometimes also results in nerve damage and paralysis. Even with treatment, diphtheria kills around 10 percent of people it infects. Young children, as well as adults over the age of 60, are especially at risk.
Welch didn’t suspect diphtheria at first. He knew the illness was incredibly contagious and reasoned that many more people would be sick – specifically, the family members of the children who had died – if there truly was an outbreak. Nevertheless, the symptoms, along with the growing number of deaths, were unmistakable. By 1925 Welch knew for certain that diphtheria had come to Nome.
In desperation, Welch tried treating an infected seven-year-old girl with some expired antitoxin – but she died just a few hours after he administered it.
AN INACCESSIBLE CURE
A vaccine for diphtheria wouldn’t be widely available until the mid-1930s and early 1940s – so an outbreak of the disease meant that each of the 10,000 inhabitants of Nome were all at serious risk.
One option was to use something called an antitoxin – a serum consisting of anti-diphtheria antibodies – to treat the patients. However, the town’s reserve of diphtheria antitoxin had expired. Welch had ordered a replacement shipment of antitoxin the previous summer – but the shipping port that was set to deliver the serum had been closed due to ice, and no new antitoxin would arrive before spring of 1925. In desperation, Welch tried treating an infected seven-year-old girl with some expired antitoxin – but she died just a few hours after he administered it.
Welch radioed for help to all the major towns in Alaska as well as the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. His telegram read: An outbreak of diphtheria is almost inevitable here. I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin. Mail is the only form of transportation.
When the Alaskan Board of Health learned about the outbreak, the men rushed to devise a plan to get antitoxin to Nome. Dropping the serum in by airplane was impossible, as the available planes were unsuitable for flying during Alaska’s severe winter weather, where temperatures were routinely as cold as -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
In late January 1925, roughly 30,000 units of antitoxin were located in an Anchorage hospital and immediately delivered by train to a nearby city, Nenana, en route to Nome. Nenana was the furthest city that was reachable by rail – but unfortunately it was still more than 600 miles outside of Nome, with no transportation to make the delivery. Meanwhile, Welch had confirmed 20 total cases of diphtheria, with dozens more at high risk. Diphtheria was known for wiping out entire communities, and the entire town of Nome was in danger of suffering the same fate.
It was Mark Summer, the Board of Health superintendent, who suggested something unorthodox: Using a relay team of sled-racing dogs to deliver the antitoxin serum from Nenana to Nome. The Board quickly voted to accept Summer’s idea and set up a plan: The thousands of units of antitoxin serum would be passed along from team to team at different towns along the mail route from Nenana to Nome. When it reached a town called Nulato, a famed dogsled racer named Leonhard Seppala and his experienced team of huskies would take the serum more than 90 miles over the ice of Norton Sound, the longest and most treacherous part of the journey. Past the sound, the serum would change hands several times more before arriving in Nome.
Between January 27 and 31, the serum passed through roughly a dozen drivers and their dog sled teams, each of them carrying the serum between 20 and 50 miles to the next destination. Though each leg of the trip took less than a day, the sub-zero temperatures – sometimes as low as -85 degrees – meant that every driver and dog risked their lives. When the first driver, Bill Shannon, arrived at his checkpoint in Tolovana on January 28th, his nose was black with frostbite, and three of his dogs had died. The driver who relieved Bill Shannon, named Edgar Kalland, needed the owner of a local roadhouse to pour hot water over his hands to free them from the sled’s metal handlebar. Two more dogs from another relay team died before the serum was passed to Seppala at a town called Ungalik.
THE FINAL STRETCHES
Seppala and his team raced across the ice of the Norton Sound in the dead of night on January 31, with wind chill temperatures nearing an astonishing -90 degrees. The team traveled 84 miles in a single day before stopping to rest – and once rested, they set off again in the middle of the night through a raging winter storm. The team made it across the ice, as well as a 5,000-foot ascent up Little McKinley Mountain, to pass the serum to another driver in record time. The serum was now just 78 miles from Nome, and the death toll in town had reached 28.
The serum reached Gunnar Kaasen and his team of dogs on February 1st. Balto, Kaasen’s lead dog, guided the team heroically through a winter storm that was so severe Kaasen later reported not being able to see the dogs that were just a few feet ahead of him.
Visibility was so poor, in fact, that Kaasen ran his sled two miles past the relay point before noticing – and not wanting to lose a minute, he decided to forge on ahead rather than doubling back to deliver the serum to another driver. As they continued through the storm, the hurricane-force winds ripped past Kaasen’s sled at one point and toppled the sled – and the serum – overboard. The cylinder containing the antitoxin was left buried in the snow – and Kaasen tore off his gloves and dug through the tundra to locate it. Though it resulted in a bad case of frostbite, Kaasen eventually found the cylinder and kept driving.
Kaasen arrived at the next relay point on February 2nd, hours ahead of schedule. When he got there, however, he found the relay driver of the next team asleep. Kaasen took a risk and decided not to wake him, fearing that time would be wasted with the next driver readying his team. Kaasen, Balto, and the rest of the team forged on, driving another 25 miles before finally reaching Nome just before six in the morning. Eyewitnesses described Kaasen pulling up to the town’s bank and stumbling to the front of the sled. There, he collapsed in exhaustion, telling onlookers that Balto was “a damn fine dog.”
A LIVING LEGACY
Just a few hours after Balto’s heroic arrival in Nome, the serum had been thawed and was ready to administer to the patients with diphtheria. Amazingly, the relay team managed to complete the entire journey in just 127 hours – a world record at the time – without one serum vial damaged or destroyed. The serum shipment that arrived by dogsled – along with additional serum deliveries that followed in the next several weeks – were successful in stopping the outbreak in its tracks.
Balto and several other dogs – including Togo, the lead dog on Seppala’s team – were celebrated as local heroes after the race. Balto died in 1933, while the last of the human serum runners died in 1999 – but their legacy lives on: In early 2021, an all-female team of healthcare workers made the news by braving the Alaskan winter to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural North Alaska, traveling by bobsled and snowmobile – a heroic journey, and one that would have been unthinkable had Balto, Togo, and the 1925 sled runners not first paved the way.