Dr GEORGE MILLER STERNBERG
THE FATHER OF AMERICAN BACTERIOLOGY
by Keith Souter aka CLAY MORE
This post will be the first of several that will look at some of the famous doctors who pushed back the frontiers of medicine and science in the 19th century. First up is Dr George Miller Sternberg (1838-1915), a US military physician and surgeon, who would become the first American bacteriologist.
Young Dr George Sternberg
First illness and personal tragedy
Dr Sternberg saw active service and was captured at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. He escaped and rejoined his command at the defence of Washington. he served in several battles during the Peninsular Campaign and fell ill with Typhoid Fever at Harrison's Landing.
After the War he married Louisa Russell and practiced at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, then at Fort Hacker in Kansas. His wife did not go with him to Fort Hacker, but followed him. Tragically, a cholera outbreak was sweeping through the Fort and she contracted it almost immediately, and died a within hours.
After the War he was sent to New York and then to Florida, where he saw and treated many cases of Yellow Fever. And there he contracted Yellow Fever himself and fortunately survived.
Yellow Fever was called 'yellow jack' or 'yellow plague.' At the time it was thought to be one of the 'miasma' illnesses. That is, they were thought to come from 'bad air.' It was characterised by small hemorrhages in the skin (petechiae), yellow discolouration from liver impairment, fever, chills, abdominal pain, general aches, vomiting and hemorrhages into the eyes, mouth and nose.
His observations about Yellow Fever led him to advise removing inhabitants from areas that were afflicted by the disease. This was successful and led to him writing a couple of medical papers in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal - An Inquiry into the Modus Operandi of the Yellow Fever Poison in 1875 and then A Study of the Natural History of Yellow Fever in 1877.
Pushing back the frontiers of medical science
As a result of his work on Yellow Fever he was appointed in 1880 to work with the Havana Yellow Fever Commission.
19th century field microscope
There he worked with the Cuban physician and scientist Dr Carlos Finlay (1833-1915), who had theorised that the disease was caused by mosquito bites. Dr Sternberg concurred, but although he was adept with microscopical examinations of blood and tissues, bacteriology was not advanced enough to identify the causative organism. Indeed, it was not until 1927 that the virus was detected, and it was not until 1930 that vaccines were developed.
Yellow Fever spread by a species of mosquito
Sternberg had experienced both Yellow Fever and Typhoid Fever and had lost his first wife from Cholera. He was to go on to describe the cause of Malaria from Plasmodium malariae in the blood, again after mosquito bites in 1881.
Malarial parasites (Plasmodium malariae) in the blood
And in 1886 he confirmed the roles of bacteria in both Tuberculosis and in Typhoid fever.
Salmonella typhi, a flagellated (see the little whip-like flagella) gram positive bacteria that cause Typhoid Fever
In 1892 he wrote Manual of Bacteriology, the first American textbook o the science. Then in 1893 he was appointed as the 18th US Army Surgeon General, a post he held until 1902. During his tenure he oversaw the establishment of the American Army College in 1893 and also US Army Nurse Corps in 1901.
His later years were spent trying to improve the social conditions of tuberculous patients.
He was described by Robert Koch, the discoverer of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative organism of TB, as the Father of American Bacteriology. It was an accolade that he thoroughly deserved.
Clay More's character of Dr Logan Munro, the town doctor is appearing in several of the Wolf Creek novels
And his other new character, Doc Marcus Quigley, dentist, gambler and occasional bounty hunter continues in his quest to bring a murderer to justice. The complete collection of short stories is now available in both paperback and eBook from High Noon Press.