Friday, August 10, 2012

The Almost Cure-All Urine of Albert Alexander

Hennig Brand, playing with pee, discovering the philosopher's stone.
Urine is useful.  The Latin poet Catullus mocked the Spanish for brushing their teeth with their own pee.  Drinking your mid-stream morning tinkle is recommended by some practitioners of yoga.  The Roman world collected piss to use for washing clothes--the ammonia would help bleach the coarse fibres.  And it was curiosity about the magical properties of wee which led Hennig Brand in the 17th Century to experiment with urine and so discover phosphorous.

None of this mattered for Albert Alexander, an Oxford County policeman who in 1941 was hospitalized with a severe infection resulting from an unfortunate rosebush scratch on his mouth.  He came down with vicious blood poisoning, and his face became so matted with weeping red abscesses that one of his eyes had to be removed.  The infection then spread to his lungs.  If he was not cured, he would die in writhing agony.  But the only cure at the time, the drugs called sulfonamides, were not effective with cases when the patient was as utterly suffused with pus as Alexander was.  He had no hope at all.

Enter Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, two scientists who had been experimenting with a drug that could very well become the magic bullet--the medicine that would destroy all infection.

To make the drug, they'd been culturing 500 liters of mold every week.  They hired three or four girls to grow the mold in every receptacle they could find--they used baths, bed pans, pie dishes, and even food trays, before finally settling on a purpose-made ceramic jar.

After successful trials on rats, Florey and Chain were finally ready to try the panacea on a human subject.  But they were concerned.  The drug was so strong it would probably reveal itself to be highly toxic to humans.  Would the cure be worse than the disease?

The mold was penicillin, and Albert Alexander was going to be the first person to be cured by it.

The magic mold itself.
On February 12th 1941, Florey injected Alexander with a large dose of penicillin, and the results were considered miraculous.  By the next morning Alexander's temperature had returned to normal and he had even regained his appetite.  He was cured!  But there was a problem.  To fight off the infection Alexander required an injection of about a gram of penicillin a day, and there just wasn't that much penicillin to go around, no matter how fastidiously the three or four 'penicillin grils' tended to their mold vats.

Enter urine.  The enterprising scientists collected Alexander's urine and processed it, retrieving whatever penicillin Alexander happened to piss out.  This was duly injected into Alexander again, and for nearly a week, his infection was beaten back.

But it was not beaten.  After five days, with their reserves of penicillin completely depleted and longer able to retrieve more penicillin from Alexander's urine, Alexander was left with his infection.  He succumbed to it on March 14th.

Albert Alexander did not die in vain.  His initial miraculous recovery was proof that penicillin actually worked in humans, and more--it proved non-toxic to people.  The next person to be treated with the magic bullet, a teenager whose temperature had shot up to almost 100 degrees as a result of an infected hip--was back to normal in two days.  A new era opened up in human history--one where we didn't ever have to worry about death from rose-thorn scratches.  In part, for this we have to thank that first brave medical guina pig, Albert Alexander, the constable from Oxford County who had an unfortunate pruning accident.

I heard about the case of Albert Alexander from Dr. Karl's Podcast.  My other sources are an interview with Norman Heatly on Science Watch, and the article the Discovery of Penicillin from the American Chemical Society.


Phil Wood said...

The Albert Alexander story always seems to describe him as an Oxford or Oxford County policeman. But he wasn't - he was a Berkshire County policeman based in Abingdon. The county boundary changed in 1974 and Abingdon is now in Oxfordshire - but not then!

And the first patients to receive penicillin did so in 1931 (my mother was probably saved by it in 1935). Alexander's case is a milestone in that the drug was administered intravenously, but he was not the first to receive the miracle cure.

Unknown said...

Thanks heaps for the great info, Phil! When I've got a moment, I will try to incorporate your notes into the piece.

Bocu said...

Hey Phil, can I talk to you somehow? I'm researching on penicillin and this is the first time someone mentioned that penicillin was administered in 1931. (1941 is commonly accepted).