They don’t make scientists like they used to

Max Josef von Pettenkofer was as stereotypically stubborn as a German before Germany was even invented. Also highly intelligent, he became famous in the 19th century by being one of the smartest men alive, which after thinking about it couldn’t have been hard because humanity wasn’t exactly at its brightest back then. Doctors didn’t even know to wash their hands after handling dead bodies. Von Pettenkofer made his mark when he was one of the first scientific leaders to step up to ask, ‘Hey, how about we not live in filth all the time?’

With his theories about this so-called hygiene, he developed the first pure-water system for Munich, automatically making it one of the cleanest cities in Europe at the time. He was also a renowned chemist, discovering, identifying and measuring creatinine in urine, which doctors still use today to determine kidney function. He studied how to improve the living conditions of the time and created a new technique for making cement because, goshdarnit, that cement was going to harden in the most efficient way possible. While this would be enough for most scientists to sit back and reap the benefits of improving society, von Pettenkofer’s résumé goes on. If it was science and it existed, that man knew about it.

Bouillon cubes soaking in liquid. Image from Creative Commons.
Bouillon cubes soaking in liquid. Image from Creative Commons.

Thus, when a cholera outbreak struck Munich, von Pettenkofer seemed like the man to count on. Shortly before, another scientist named Robert Koch identified a bacterium in contaminated water that caused cholera. Cholera is a pretty bad disease, and by “pretty bad” I mean it causes the sufferer to have massive diarrhea until they die from dehydration.

Von Pettenkofer and his daughter managed to survive, and he threw himself into a life of following cholera outbreaks. Only, as a hygienist, he didn’t believe Koch’s theory that bacteria alone could kill a person. He believed that in order to become lethal, the bacteria had to be influenced by environmental factors. He believed this even though thirty years before another scientist, John Snow, proved that cholera was caused by contaminated water and saved London from a crappy death by breaking off the Broad Street water pump. Von Pettenkofer wasn’t convinced, so like the reasonable man he was, he arranged an experiment using groups of mice to study the variables.

Just kidding. Von Pettenkofer was much more original and unorthodox than that. He slapped some cholera from a dead patient on a bouillon cube and ate it. Then he washed it down with cholera-contaminated water.

The next day, he was sick.

Fortunately, his previous brush with cholera caused his body to develop a slight immunity to the disease, so his plague soup didn’t kill him. Not dying did, however, convince him he was absolutely right and he used his experiment to push his cause. Given that his cause was cleaning the crap off of the streets, it’s hard to judge his wrong-but-right way of thinking. Eventually sanity won out and the scientific community realized Koch was right all along, although von Pettenkofer wasn’t entirely wrong since cholera contamination occurs most often in unhygienic areas.

Did I say “sanity won out?” I meant to say four more people went on the von Pettenkofer diet, and one later received a Nobel Prize in medicine.