Antibacterial Therapy: Taking the Cure
A century ago, a simple infection could take a life. Before the 1900s, physicians relied on a bevy of concoctions to treat infectious conditions that they could not understand. Mercury was the treatment of choice for skin diseases such as syphilis and leprosy, and was administered in the form of ore cinnabar as early as the 1300s. It was later given in the form of ointments, oral medication and vapor baths. Given the toxicity of mercury, the treatment set the stage for the debut of the less-toxic potassium iodide in the 1840s. Potassium iodide was effective against even late-stage syphilis, and prompted scientists to continue to pursue a way to eradicate the disease. In 1908, German microbiologist Paul Ehrlich began extensive work looking for a cure. After testing more than 600 arsenic compounds, he discovered the 606th—salvarsan—to be an effective treatment for syphilis. The treatment was a boon for urologists, since many of them made their living treating venereal disease. These "clap doctors"—red-light district, LeClapier—were slowly building their treatment arsenals.