Serum and virus

Serum and virus

In Brief

"Foot and mouth disease. Known as Koch's preparation. Serum and virus. Percentage of salted horses. Rinderpest. Emperor's horses at Murzsteg, lower Austria. Veterinary surgeons." Like so many of his historical and political pronouncements, Deasy's science is an overhasty mixture of good and bad information. His letter to the editor reflects awareness of new, cutting-edge science in bacteriology, virology, and veterinary medicine. But he is wrong to say that FMD "can be cured. It is cured. My cousin, Blackwood Price, writes to me it is regularly treated and cured in Austria by cattledoctors there." No cure or successful vaccination was even in the offing; Deasy's barrage of learned names does not represent actionable information.

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The details from the letter display a combination of enlightened scientific awareness and incomplete understanding. Gifford notes that "Veterinary surgeons" were a "relatively new branch of medical science at the turn of the century," and he commends Deasy for his argument "that epidemic diseases among animals should be investigated and treated in the light of the latest scientific methods." But his inquiries with the national records bureau in Austria turned up no evidence that the "Emperor's horses at Murzsteg" were subject to veterinary experiments at any time during the years 1895-1914.

"Rinderpest" was another bovine disease, and the "Percentage of salted horses" refers to attempts to inoculate horses against tuberculosis, with a biological substance suspended in saline solution (hence "salted"). But the tuberculosis treatment did not live up to initial hopes, and rinderpest remained incurable. "Serum and virus" apparently refers to methods developed in the 1890s for preventing and/or treating infectious diseases like tetanus by injecting patients with blood serum from immunized horses. These antibody and antitoxin treatments were eventually extended into the realm of viral illness (FMD is caused by a virus), but not until the 1940s. "Koch's preparation" was devised in 1882 by Robert Koch as an inoculation against anthrax; but when two of the great scientist's students attempted to apply the same technique to the prevention of FMD, early in the 20th century, they achieved only minimal success.

This jumble of information about FMD, TB, rinderpest, cows, horses, and Austrian doctors gets jumbled some more in Oxen of the Sun, when a drunken Stephen tells Bloom that "he had dispatches from the emperor's chief tailtickler thanking him for the hospitality, that was sending over Doctor Rinderpest, the bestquoted cowcatcher in all Muscovy, with a bolus or two of physic to take the bull by the horns." "Muscovy" may be a derivative of "Murzsteg," translated by bad memory and alcoholic and linguistic exuberance.

JH 2012
German physician and bacteriologist (and 1905 Nobel laureate) Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch (1843-1910), who isolated the bacterial agents that cause anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera. Source:
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, established by the Austrian Empire in 1572. Source: