Lessons Learned

I sometimes think we are of the mindset that previous generations solved everything, and it should be clear sailing for us, as though all the hard parts are behind us. We are annoyed when we are confronted with pandemics that limit our movement and freedom. “How did this happen,” we cry out, our arms raised in frustration. History does repeat itself and I wonder why we are reluctant to remember our lessons from the past. Coincidentally, September 28th is an important reminder of such things.

On September 28, 1918, a Liberty Loan parade was held in Philadelphia. This gathering of people resulted in a massive outbreak of the Spanish flu that up until that point had been spreading slowly through the United States since the previous February, most likely from the American Midwest. With a “this-can’t-happen-to-me” attitude, people gathered which allowed the virus to pick up steam. Then 200,000 American troops took the virus with them to Europe as they engaged in World War I. This pandemic killed 5% of the global populace, with an estimated 50 million dead. With no vaccine, the pandemic was able to reach people in every corner of the world. Almost 55,000 Canadians died from the virus, almost as many as the Canadians who died in the First World War. The public criticized the government for its failure to coordinate resources to public health across the country. The Department of Health was established in 1919 in response to the pandemic, making public health the responsibility of all levels of government, to allow for a unified effort to handle such concerns in the future. Yet here we are, thinking we can go it alone, that we know more than science has proven, thinking we can make decisions about what is best for us as individuals without heeding the calls to action learned from our predecessors.

Alexander Fleming wrote in his journal in 1928 – “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28th, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, but I guess that was exactly what I did.” Dr. Fleming had been on holiday and upon his return to his messy lab he noticed something. Some colonies of Staphylococcus aureus in petri dishes had been contaminated by a mold in his absence. After microscopic examination, he realized the mold had prevented the staphylococci from growing as it normally would have. The mold was Penicillium notatum. Dr. Fleming’s lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London was small and he had a limited chemistry background, but he was the one who got the ball rolling, giving opportunity to Dr. Howard Florey in the School of Pathology at Oxford University, with help from biochemist Dr. Ernst Chain, to pick up the baton in 1938 in his large lab filled with curious scientists. It was not a straight line to create pure penicillin but with creative thinking and problem solving, by 1942, 400 million units of pure penicillin had been manufactured. The death rate from bacterial pneumonia in World War I was 18%. With the creation of penicillin, that rate dropped to less than 1% in World War II. Fleming, Florey, and Chain were awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945 for their work with penicillin. Later, Dr. Norman Heatley received an honorary Doctorate of Medicine in 1990 for his contributions in determining how to purify penicillin. Teamwork in pursuit of the greater good.

Canadians were hit hard with polio in 1910, with cases increasing dramatically between 1927 and 1953. Canada was one of the first countries to eliminate polio due to a concentrated vaccine program. In 2005, a paper entitled “Conquering the Crippler, Canada and the Eradication of Polio”, was inserted in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, telling the story of “how Canada overcame the great crippler”. The aim of the paper was to reinforce the concept of lessons learned. “Poliomyelitis cannot be cured,” the paper wrote, “but it can be prevented.”

We have been striving for generations to fight back against disease, each generation having a clearer picture than the one before. An 18th century Irish-British philosopher, Edmund Burke, said – “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Are we as individuals paying attention to what we have learned from the past? I’m not so sure.