Illustration of Tuberculosis vaccine

1921 Tuberculosis vaccine

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Albert Calmette, Camille Guérin immunology Illustration of Tuberculosis vaccine

Tuberculosis vaccine

Camille Guérin’s father and his wife died of tuberculosis. There was no cure and no antibiotic. * People called it consumption, phthisis, scrofula, King’s evil, white plague, and it goes back nine thousand years, older than Egyptian mummies. * Guérin was a veterinarian and worked with Albert Calmette producing snake antivenom. Edward Jenner had shown that innoculation with cowpox armed the body against smallpox. Too bad, bovine TB bacillum wasn’t benign the way cowpox was. Together, they began to work with bovine TB bacillum, to find a way to weaken it so that it could immunize without causing TB. They found that a glycerin-bile-potato medium grew the bacilli and weakened it. * Thirteen years later after isolating and subculturing a new strain 239 times eventually resulted in a vaccine that could be safely used on humans but also immunized against TB.

Treatment and prevention

Injecting an attenuated bovine bacillum into the skin of the arm of a newborn doesn’t sound great, but it works, and it’s miles beyond the Egyptian treatment, which was “surgical lancing of the cyst and the application of a ground mixture of acacia gum, peas, fruits, animal blood, insect blood, honey, and salt.” The Egyptian treatment probably caused more problems than it cured. Akhenaten and Nefertiti died of TB. It was no better in India, where you could be treated with various meats, breast milk, alcohol, and rest, and advised to move to a higher altitude, or in China where the disease was either recognized to be uncurable, or cured by burning and inhaling the smoke of magic talismans, or in ancient Greece where Galen advised “blood letting and eating barley water, fish, and fruit.”


BCG vaccination also protects you from leprosy. You just don’t want to get leprosy, and there are other ways to avoid it. In the U.S., mainly you just want to avoid armadillos. If you spend too much time with an armadillo and pick up a case of leprosy, isolation in a special clinic and a treatment of antibiotics over a course of six to twenty-four months should take care of the problem.

Never coughing

Where she grew up, tuberculosis was feared. In her village, so many people died of it. Her father died of it. When she was a child, so as not to worry her mother, she never coughed.

The first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis was isolated in 1944 by Albert Schatz, Elizabeth Bugie, and Selman Waksman. We have many things to be afraid of today; it would be interesting to know for sure whether science has eliminated more serious worries than it has caused. On one hand, smallpox; on the other, nuclear holocaust. On one hand, lack of healthcare; on the other, the cost of healthcare. On one hand, dying young; on the other, living too long. . . .

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