Monday, November 17, 2014

The search for Antibiotics' PATIENT ZERO .... in lead-up to celebration of 75 years of life-saving antibiotics

ABSTRACT : Patient Zero of the Age of Antibiotics (seventy five years young as of October 16th 2015) was Charles Aronson , a Jewish youth from 1202 Vyse Street in East Tremont, Bronx, New York.

Born about 1913, he was a newspaper teletype operator in 1940.

His parents Alex (born in 1889) and Olga (born 1890) were from the old Polish part of the old (pre-Soviet) Russian Empire while he and his sister Lillian (born about 1915) and younger brother Samuel (born about 1920) were born in New York.

Olga was a homemaker and Alex was a ladies coat maker (probably cutting ladies' fur coats at the famous Levine and Smith firm in lower Manhattan) and their two other children were belt-makers.

Charles had a lifelong affinity/weakness for deadly diseases caused by strep throats, combined with an amazing ability to cheat death from them --- over and over.

As a small child , he had a near fatal case of Rheumatic Fever, that affected not only his joints temporarily and his heart valves permanently , but also led to severe neurological effects.

Then he was quickly swept up in the frequently fatal mysterious "sleepy sickness" that ran its course worldwide from 1917 to 1927. Oliver Sacks made it famous in the book and movie called Awakenings.

Those it didn't quickly kill outright, it would often leave in a coma or catatonic state.

Again he survived this disease as he did its frequent Parkinson-like aftereffects.

Despite all these brain-related attacks, he not only managed to finish High School during the hard times of the Great Depression but also to find a good skilled job as a teletype operator at a newspaper.

He then survived two attacks of fatal SBE thanks to receiving history's first penicillin , only to get a severe stroke in 1944 that left him paralyzed and speechless.

Again he survived at least until the beginning of 1949, when he passes out of the public record.

I currently believe he died in October 1951 and is buried at the NEW MONTEFIORE cemetery in West Babylon (Long Island) , along with his parents and two siblings.


Penicillin-the-Antiseptic was already twelve years old in October 1940 and a relative laggard in the human discovery and use  of antibiotics (maybe antibiotic number twelve ?) --- at least by the dictionary definition of antibiotics.

The dictionaries describe antibiotics as lethal substances produced by one microbe to keep other microbes at bay.

But you and I - mere laypeople and not dictionary editors - know exactly what Antibiotics are and are not (that's a capital "A" there , by the way !)

They are not some minor external antiseptic your mom dabs on your scraped knee when you fall off your tricycle, as penicillin had only been used  for from the Fall of 1928 to the Fall of 1940.

Rather they are highly potent lifesavers that you take internally as a ten day course of pills - or in a real emergency, get many times a day via injections.

In one sense we already know a good deal about injected penicillin's INDEX PATIENT , the individual who started the whole thing by inspiring Dr Dawson to birth the Age of Antibiotics.

His name was Aaron (Leroy) Alston and he had had his 'invariably fatal' condition of SBE (subacute bacterial endocarditis, a Rheumatic Heart Disease usually caused by Rheumatic Fever) for about a year.

The latest conventional treatment was to give the patient as much of the latest (least toxic, most powerful) sulfa drug as their body could endure.

(All sulfa drugs are toxic in high doses  and the size of the doses of sulfa that 99% of SBE cases need for a cure would result in patient death long before they cured.)

Alston had all the latest sulfa drugs and many of the other proposed SBE cures besides and none were working.

But I believe that the first patient to actually get that historic  first needle of penicillin , our historic PATIENT ZERO , even if only moments before Alston, was a last minute patient called Charles Aronson.

If Aaron Leroy Alston had been cured by his historic course of injected penicillin , the ever-present and very jealous Alpha Males among medical scientists would have quickly trashed this claim - crediting sulfa drugs for the success instead.

But if Charles Aronson, a patient so new he hadn't yet had time to be put on the conventional sulfa treatment , was cured of SBE after a course of penicillin , the critics would all be left speechless.

Better then to 'do' him first, to make a stronger lead in the subsequent medical article.

Penicillin did not cure Alston and he died three months later.

Nor did penicillin - alone - cure Aronson.

But a little penicillin (more morale booster than medicine) a lot of sulfa and a miracle from heaven above let Aronson be that very rare person, maybe one in a hundred or one in a thousand who survived more than three years after first contracting SBE.

About four years later , he got an onset of a new SBE attack and this time got a decent amount of penicillin from the same doctor and was cured.

So who was he ?

The doctor who gave those first needles , Dr Martin Henry Dawson, had never been a lead doctor on treating an SBE case before - he was newly appointed to  a middle rank position in the hospital pecking order - only having substantive control over one public (semi-free /teaching) ward.

Such wards tended to attract poor patients and their poor relatives, who liked getting free or cheap treatment in a world class hospital that was only a short bus trip away.

Dawson had no reputation for his SBE work having never dealt with any - so his public ward patients were almost certain attracted to the closest cheapest quality hospital rather than to him personally.

The other historic penicillin patient, Aaron Alston , proved that so - he lived about two miles south of the hospital.

In any case, there were only two men named Charles Aronson in the 1940 national US census that were born around 1913.

I contacted the children of the one who lived a thousand kilometres away from NYC at the time - they said he was never sick - let alone sick with all the severe diseases as described by Dr Dawson's medical report on his Charles Aronson.

The only other Charles Aronson the right age in America in 1940 was lived in the Bronx, a mere four miles directly east of the hospital.

He had to be PATIENT ZERO.

I have already described what we know of him in the abstract above --- basically not much.

For unlike Alston (and the third penicillin-the-Antibiotic patient, George Conant) Charles Aronson and his family seemed to have left almost no mark in the public record.

Even so, it is hard to believe that an entire Jewish family of five that lived in the same part of the Bronx for over fifty years are remembered by no one.

In the 1930s, the Bronx was the world's biggest Jewish community and while those days are long gone , literally millions of North American Jews still have some sort of family link to the pre-war Bronx.

There is something else I should mention.

Dr Dawson, a gentile , literally gave up his life during WWII to save the lives of  Rheumatic Heart Disease patients sentenced to a Code Slow death by an uncaring Allied Anglo-American medical establishment.

We know the names of only six of those patients - and yet four of the six have Jewish sounding names .

Because Rheumatic Fever and SBE hit the poor , minorities and immigrants the hardest and many metro New York area Jews in those days were very poor I suspect this ratio would hold if we knew the names of all those saved from death by his efforts.

(Because Dawson also inspired a then small soda pop supplier in Brooklyn (Pfizer) to develop the natural fermentation process we still use to make 95% of all our antibiotics , we all owe him a big debt of gratitude.)

A direct counterpart to Charles Aronson, a German man named Martin Bader, a man with the same chronic conditions as Aronson and who like Charles was a productive employed citizen , wasn't so lucky.

His condition rendered him in the Nazi mind as a life unworthy of life and he was one of the first killed by the Aktion T4 program as part of the run up to the Holocaust.

Yet America and New York were the ones who actually birthed eugenics , not Germany , and if America was unwilling to directly murder 'unfit' Jews such as Aronson, they came damn close by officially denying them access to wartime penicillin.

Dawson gave up his life to combat these values and in the end he was successful  - the powerful War Production Board  (WPB) reversed course and made penicillin-for-all a vital wartime priority.

So Charles Aronson's story is that distinct rarity , a wartime story of Jews and eugenics that ends up a good news story with world wide benefits for all of us.

Yet another reason to find out more about this elusive PATIENT ZERO of the Age of Antibiotics ....

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