This science column will really get under your skin

Have you gotten your flu shot yet? My wife got hers. She said it was one of the least painful shots she ever received. Was that because of the nurse’s skill or because living with me has toughened her up considerably?

I’d like to take some credit for the nursing skills, having taught classes to prospective nurses for about 40 years now. However, about all I could really claim credit for is teaching them the history of “hypodermicity,” which means below the dermis, or skin.

Someone else taught them how to actually get the needle below the dermis.

We didn’t always have needles to get under people’s skin with. We used to have to do it the old-fashioned way, like using newspaper columns. We’ve known about syringes since ancient times, but they weren’t “hypodermic syringes” because they weren’t used to get under anyone’s skin. Originally it was just a pressure device using a plunger, or screw apparatus, to exert pressure.

The hollow needle part wasn’t invented until 1853. A French physician, Charles Pravaz, wanted to inject iron perchlorate coagulant into a patient with an aneurysm. What? Iron perchlorate is toxic, highly corrosive, acidic, and a powerful dehydrating agent. We use it today to remove suspended material from sewage and in water treatment plants. It’s also used in industrial leaching and etching processes.

Pravaz used silver to create a needle that was about an inch long and half a millimeter in diameter. Modern needles are made of stainless steel and are manufactured in uniform gauges. The higher the gauge, the smaller the needle.

I suppose Pravaz can be forgiven for using iron perchlorate coagulant as a treatment since there really were no other treatments for much of anything available in the 1850s. It’s hard for us to understand that humans haven’t always had hollow needles, or antibiotics, vaccines, antiseptics, antibiotics or anesthetics.

In fact, all of those things have been developed in just the last 150 years or so. It’s hard to understand how all these things could have been invented without the National Science Foundation (NSF). It wasn’t established until 1950, after these were already invented. Compared to the 6,000 years of recorded history, 150 years is a drop in the bucket. For comparison, my great-grandfather would have been born about 150 years ago. Heck, I’m older than the NSF.

In about 1860, Robert Koch, a German country physician, was the first to demonstrate that certain bacteria could cause disease. To prove his point, Koch isolated the bacterium that causes Anthrax. Working in a crude lab in the back of his home, he serially transferred Anthrax from mouse to mouse over 200 times. (And my wife complains about a few bees in the backyard.)

How did he do this without a hypodermic needle? Simple! He split wooden logs and used a flamed forceps to pry splinters from the inner surface of the wood. He assumed the inner wood would be sterile. Then, he dipped the splinter into a bacterial culture and slipped the splinter into the mouse’s tail.

Oh yeah, and by the way, he hadn’t invented sterile broth for growing bacteria yet. So he got cow eyes from the local abattoir (that’s a slaughterhouse, but I’m trying to be sophisticated here) and opened them with a scalpel he flamed in a candle.

The vitreous humor within the eye was used to grow the bacteria.

Humans know the names of all kinds of tyrants, generals and warriors, but often forget those who have bettered the lot of mankind. So even if he was French, you might pause and give thanks for Charles Pravaz when you get your flu shot this year.

Without his contribution to science the nurse might be sticking wooden slivers in your tail.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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