Microbes redirect our best-laid plans

Greeks at War (pottery from the British Museum; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The madness of King George

Timeline, 2006: It’s not that unusual for disease to alter the course of history–or, history as humans intended it to be. Some scholars believe, for example, that the intransigence of King George III of England arose from his affliction with porphyria, a heritable metabolic disorder that can manifest as a mental problem, with symptoms that include irrational intractability. But it’s rarer for a disease to shift the balance of power so entirely that one nation gains the upper hand over another. Yet that appears to be what happened to the city-state of Athens just before the Peloponnesian Wars of around 430 B.C. The upshot of the wave of disease and the wars was that Sparta conquered Athens in 404 B.C.

Spartans had a little microbial assistance

Sparta may have owed its big win to a small bacterium, Salmonella enterica enterica serovar Typhi, the microbe responsible for typhoid fever. A plague swept across Athens from 430 to 426 B.C., having traveled from Ethiopia to Egypt and Libya before alighting in the Greek city and destroying up to a third of its population. In addition, it brought to a close what became known as the Golden Age of Pericles, a time when Athens produced some of its most amazing and widely recognized art, artists, and philosophers, including Aeschylus, Socrates, the Parthenon, and Sophocles. Pericles was a statesman who oversaw the rebuilding of Athens following the Greek win in the Persian Wars, and he guided the city-state to a more democratic form of rule and away from the dictatorships of the previous regimes. In the process, the city flourished in art and architecture.

And then along came the plague. The Greek historian Thucydides, who chronicled the Peloponnesian Wars, left behind such a detailed account of the plague, its symptoms, and what happened to its victims, that intrigued medical detectives have ever since debated about what might have caused it. Thucydides, himself a plague survivor, vividly described the sudden fever, redness of the eyes, hemorrhaging, painful chest and cough, stomach distress, and diarrhea that ultimately led to death in so many cases. He also mentioned pustules and ulcers of the skin and the loss of toes and fingers in survivors. This litany of symptoms produced many candidate causes, including bubonic plague, anthrax, smallpox, measles, and typhoid fever.

Construction crews yet again uncover something interesting

In the mid-1980s, a construction crew was busy digging a hole for a subway station in the city of Kerameikos when they uncovered a mass burial site. Unlike other Greek burial sites, this one bore marks of hasty and haphazard burials, and the few artefacts that accompanied the bones dated it to the time of the plague that destroyed Athens. Researchers were able to harvest some teeth from the site and analyze the tooth pulp, which retains a history of the infections a person has suffered. They examined DNA sequences from the pulp for matches with suggested microbial agents of the plague, and finally found a match with the typhoid bacterium.

Typhoid Mary: Intent on cooking, ended up killing

One discrepancy between the disease pattern of typhoid fever and that described by Thucydides is the rapidity of onset the Greek historian detailed. Today, typhoid fever, which still infects millions of people worldwide, takes longer to develop in an infected individual, and sometimes never develops at all. People who bear the virus but don’t become ill themselves are “carriers.”

Perhaps the most famous carrier was Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon, a cook in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. It is believed that she infected hundreds of people, with about 50 known cases and a handful of deaths being directly associated with her. Typhoid Mary was told not to work as a cook any longer or she would be quarantined, but she simply disappeared for awhile and then turned up under a different name, still working as a cook. After another outbreak was traced to her, she was kept in quarantine for 23 years until she died.

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About ejwillingham
Sciwriter/editor/autism-ADHD parent. SciMaven @ http://doublexscience.blogspot.com/. I speak my pieces @ http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/ & @ http://thebiologyfiles.blogspot.com/

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