Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Civil War Medicine's "Spookier" Side - Part I - Glowing Wounds

With Halloween around the bend, I thought I'd post an older Civil War News "Medical Department" column that deals with one of the "spookier" aspects of Civil War medicine: the phenomenon of "glowing wounds."

Later this week I'll follow up with Part II...an article dealing with "phantom limbs."

"Glowing Wounds"

by Jim Schmidt

from the September 2001 issue of The Civil War News

A news item in summer 2001 described an interesting science fair project by two Maryland high school students, Jonathan Curtis and William Martin. Their project, "Photorhabdus luminescens: Inhibition of Pathogens and its Possible Relationship to the Healing of Civil War Wounds that Glowed," won honors at a regional science and technology competition sponsored by Westinghouse.

The bacteria that Bill and Jon studied, P. luminescens ("glowing light rod"), creates a glowing effect, is carried by the neamtode Heterorhabditis, and does not grow well at body temperature. In their experiments, they optimized conditions for growing the bacteria in the laboratory. More important, they found that three strains of the bacteria actually produced antiobiotics that inhibited the growth of other bacteria that would have caused infections in open wounds.

Phyllis Martin, Ph.D., Bill's mother, is a scientist with the Agricultural Research Service's Insect Biocontrol research program at the USDA's Beltsville, Maryland, laboratories. She provided technical assistance to the two bussing scientists and was kind enough to provide me withs ome additional information on the project.

Interest in the Civil War is truly a "family affair" for the Martins. "My interest in the Civil War started during the centennial when my dad 'dragged' us to Civil War battlefields in the east," she told me. After she married and moved to the DC area, she was once again surrounded by history and battlefields.

"Bill has visited battlefields since he was just in a stroller," Dr. Martin said. Later, during summer holidays, Bill attended Civil War camps with other middle-schoolers and enjoyed himself immensely. The family then looked to Bill to plan battlefield trips to coincide with family vacations: first to Richmond and Petersburg, then Chickamauga and Shiloh.

It was on a previous trip to Shiloh that Dr. Martin first heard a story about soldiers who came to the Bloody Pond with "glowing wounds," allegedly due to peach blossoms from a nearby orchard. The "glowing" soldiers also reportedly had better survival rates. Dr. Martin tracked down the reference to a mid-1970s Round table meeting and the University of Chicago. Talks with people in Chicago bore no fruit, and other historians told the Martins it was only folklore.

But was the "glowing wounds" story just folklore? The boys theorize that unique conditions at the battle of Shiloh may have allowed for this interesting phenomenon to occur. Shiloh was fought in the spring, when the daytime temperatures were warm, but the nighttime temperatures were cool. "This allowed temperatures warm enough for the neamtodes that carry the bacteria to move and yet have the wound tempearatures low enough for the bacteria to grow," Dr. Martin explained.

In researching their project, Jon and Bill found a reference, from the 1820s, by a German military doctor who described a glowing wound ina leg at the siege of Manheim. Another scientist, in the 1940s, speculated that glowing wounds were quite commonly observed before the germ theory was known, and suggested that these wounds healed better and without as much scarring.

Like all good scientists, Jon and Bill have not "rested on their laurels." They have used their original project as a springboard for other research, including experiments designed to test if nematodes are attracted to blood found in clothing or wounds. Their research may very well lead to a positive effect on our society (besides clearing up a question of Civil War folklore): they may have found a pathway to new and more effective antibiotics.

No comments: