I once went walking through an old abandoned cemetery in South Australia. Surrounded by endless miles of red dirt and golden wheat fields, it sat well back from the road down a long dirt track. A rusted wrought iron fence surrounded the 20 graves it held – protecting them from what it was hard to tell. There were no houses around; not even a trace of an old chimney stack. There were no trees that large animals could shelter under or house in. The old fence could not have protected the graves from the merciless sun, nor the biting winds.
The gravestones are a concrete link to the people who once inhabited this wild land. A simple sandstone column inscribed with words that touched the heart.
Aged 3 years and 2 months
Holding God’s hand
I could feel Jack as I stood near his resting place. I could see his innocent body held by his mother and father as they beseeched God to save his dear little life. He’d done nothing wrong; he didn’t deserve to die of an illness.
But Jack was born in the wrong century.
In Jack’s time doctors treated most illnesses with leeches and pharmacists concocted potions from unproven herbs. Medical knowledge was limited. It wasn’t enough to save Jack.
Discovery by Chance
While Jack was being laid to rest, another 3-year old boy was growing up in Scotland. This little boy was luckier than Jack. He survived the harsh winters. He went to school, learned to read and write, and discovered that he was interested in medicine.
During WWI he served in an army medical unit and he noticed that the antiseptics used on soldiers’ injuries were not working; in fact, the injuries got worse. This gave the young man focus as he returned to study medicine after the war. He completed his training and gained a reputation as a brilliant but untidy researcher.
His name was Alexander Fleming.
On September 3, 1928, Fleming returned from vacation to find a large stack of contaminated Petri dishes lying on his lab workbench. As he sorted through the dishes, he noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus which had killed the bacteria immediately surrounded it. Fleming spent several weeks growing mold and trying to determine the specific substance that killed the bacteria. He enlisted the help of C.J. LaTouche, a mold expert, and determined it was the Penicillium mold. Fleming noted his findings in a journal entry dated September 15, 1928. Later, he named the antibacterial agent penicillin.
The drug held promise, but Fleming was not a chemist and was unable to isolate penicillin or keep it active long enough to be used in humans. Twelve years later two chemists continued Fleming’s work. They were able to produce a brown powder from the mold that kept its antibacterial power for longer than a few days. Needing a new drug immediately for the war front, mass production started quickly. The availability of penicillin during World War II saved many lives that otherwise would have been lost due to bacterial infections.
Cures Through Time
How many young children like Jack would have been saved with the penicillin Alexander discovered? How many parents since penicillin’s discovery have felt the depthless relief of seeing their child’s health recover quickly with a simple few drops of liquid medicine? How many of us now take this incredible cure for granted?
We are so lucky to live in this day and age where we benefit from Fleming’s penicillin, Salk and Sabin’s polio vaccine, Michiaki Takahashi’s shot that prevents chicken pox, John Franklin Enders’ inoculation that eradicated measles, Descombey’s work on preventing tetanus and Ian Frazer’s work on cervical cancer. These men are just a few of the incredible people who have cured, prevented or treated the illnesses that took the lives of so many in earlier centuries.
We now know the necessity of preventing disease. We are informed. We are healthy and we live twice as long as our great-great grandparents did.
Jack’s spirit lives in every scientist who works on finding cures for today’s diseases. They understand the anguish of parents confronted with their children’s death from illness. They are on the brink of discovering cures that will become as commonplace as penicillin is today. It’s exciting to live in this day and age, and to know this is happening for our children and grandchildren. Rest in peace, Jack.
Kim Aubrey is an Australian genealogist who has been researching for over 20 years. Her philosophy to family history is simple – “learn from your research, connect with your past.”
Kim shares ownership of kkgenealogy.com with her youngest daughter, Kristy, and undertakes all research with the “digging deeper, learning more” approach . KKGenealogy has published 6 books and aim to publish 2 further books each year. You can connect with Kim via kkgenealogy.com,Twitter, or Facebook.