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The Body Scientific

William Welch, and what a Norfolk cemetery tells us

The Body Scientific

I like cemeteries. It may seem morbid, but I do. Norfolk’s cemetery is a fine and private place. But to a student of infectious disease, it is a stone-marked history of wrenching loss and medical helplessness.

I found the graves of young women of the 19th century. One was dead at 23. Childbirth probably took her or puerperal fever in its aftermath. Tuberculosis, too, could carry off a young adult.

Epidemic remembered

The Body Scientific

In 1735, a diphtheria epidemic swept through Connecticut and the rest of New England. It started in Princeton, N.J., and raged up the coast for several years, killing children throughout New England, including Connecticut. In one family it killed all eight children, swelling their throats until they suffocated.

Except for a monograph written in 1939 that was based on the memoir of a Puritan minister, the epidemic would probably not be remembered. For an additional 200 years, parents lived in fear of diphtheria and other epidemics.

The worried person’s guide to the effects of radiation

The Body Scientific

I once knew a student who swallowed radioactive iodine. We (I was a student at the time, too) used radioactive iodine as a tracer for various experiments — it came in a little vial inside a lead container and the student decided to remove some by sucking it into an open pipette. Why she swallowed it is beyond me.

The thyroid gland contains a marvelous molecular pump that pulls iodine from the bloodstream into the thyroid, where it is used to make thyroid hormone.

A cure for cancer: past failure, future hope

The Body Scientific

Childhood leukemia has yielded to treatment, but the treatment of many tumors of adults — of the lung, the pancreas, the liver or the brain — has not been as successful despite the resources that have been marshaled. A short column cannot explain the failures of the past, what we learned while failing or what the future might hold, but a recent book, “The Emperor of All Maladies — a Biography of Cancer,” by Dr. Siddartha Mukerjee (also of Columbia University), comes close. (Note: Dr. Mukerjee won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction this week for this book.)

Why has cancer been so difficult to cure?

The Body Scientific

In 1954, there was a horrendous polio epidemic. By 1958, almost no one got polio. The 1960s saw the end of measles, mumps and rubella. After 1945, antibiotics tamed previously frightening infections. The public got used to these victories and waited for cancer to be next.

But cancer remained “The Emperor of All Maladies” — the title of a recent book by oncologist Siddartha Mukerjee. Despite a War on Cancer announced by President Nixon and the investment of vast resources, cancer remains. How is this possible?

PCBs in the Housatonic

The Body Scientific

It has been a while since I took organic chemistry, but I remember enough to know that the polychlorinated biphenyl molecules (PCBs) that contaminate our river are ugly, unnatural looking things.

They remind me of eyeglasses — two circles of carbon (the biphenyls) joined by a molecular nosepiece. Chlorine atoms project from the carbons like rhinestone bling (the polychlorinated part).