After 85 years, antibiotics are growing impotent. So what will medicine, agriculture and everyday life look like if we lose these drugs entirely?
A few years ago, I started looking online to fill in chapters of my family history that no one had ever spoken of. I registered on Ancestry.com, plugged in the little I knew, and soon was found by a cousin whom I had not known existed, the granddaughter of my grandfather's older sister. We started exchanging documents: a copy of a birth certificate, a photo from an old wedding album. After a few months, she sent me something disturbing.
It was a black-and-white scan of an article clipped from the long-goneArgus of Rockaway Beach, New York. In the scan, the type was faded and there were ragged gaps where the soft newsprint had worn through. The clipping must have been folded and carried around a long time before it was pasted back together and put away.
The article was about my great-uncle Joe, the youngest brother of my cousin's grandmother and my grandfather. In a family that never talked much about the past, he had been discussed even less than the rest. I knew he had been a fireman in New York City and died young, and that his death scarred his family with a grief they never recovered from. I knew that my father, a small child when his uncle died, was thought to resemble him. I also knew that when my father made his Catholic confirmation a few years afterward, he chose as his spiritual guardian the saint that his uncle had been named for: St. Joseph, the patron of a good death.
I had always heard Joe had been injured at work: not burned, but bruised and cut when a heavy brass hose nozzle fell on him. The article revealed what happened next. Through one of the scrapes, an infection set in. After a few days, he developed an ache in one shoulder; two days later, a fever. His wife and the neighborhood doctor struggled for two weeks to take care of him, then flagged down a taxi and drove him fifteen miles to the hospital in my grandparents' town. He was there one more week, shaking with chills and muttering through hallucinations, and then sinking into a coma as his organs failed. Desperate to save his life, the men from his firehouse lined up to give blood. Nothing worked. He was thirty when he died, in March 1938.
The date is important. Five years after my great-uncle's death, penicillin changed medicine forever. Infections that had been death sentences—from battlefield wounds, industrial accidents, childbirth—suddenly could be cured in a few days. So when I first read the story of his death, it lit up for me what life must have been like before antibiotics started saving us.
Lately, though, I read it differently. In Joe's story, I see what life might become if we did not have antibiotics any more.