You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

January 22: Uncovering the Causes of Gonorrhea and Leprosy

January 22, 2015
Albert_neisserAlbert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser, who discovered the bacterium that causes gonorrhea and also established the link between leprosy and a known bacterium, all the while suffering from ethical lapses in his scientific work, was born in Silesia on this date in 1855. In 1879 he studied and uncovered evidence about the pathogen that would be named for him, Neisseria gonorrhoeae. That same year, Norwegian physician Gerhard Hansen gave him, during a visit to Norway, tissue samples from leprosy patients. Neisser successfully stained the bacteria in those samples and announced his discovery of the pathogenesis of leprosy the following year, without giving credit to Hansen. Neisser also investigated the causes of and possible cures for syphilis through experimentation with prostitutes — whom he opposed jailing and urged regulating and educating for the sake of public health and women’s emancipation. The women with whom he worked, however — some of them children — were not aware that they were being used as experimental subjects and, in some cases, contracted syphilis from Neisser’s tampering. Four of them took Neisser to trial and won a huge settlement, which resulted in some of Europe’s first medical ethics legislation, in Prussia. “Since the beginning of recorded medical history, syphilis was a plague affecting people worldwide, virtually exploding throughout Europe during the 15th century, with no real effective treatment until the age of antibiotics. The suffering caused by this now relatively benign STD can be hard to imagine, but it was arguably public-health-enemy number one in 19th-century Europe; medical historians estimate the mortality rate was between 20 and 40 percent. Perhaps Neisser’s interest in the disease was personal — his old friend-turned-foe Hansen suffered from syphilis his whole life — or perhaps it developed out of a desire to cleanse the world of its biggest bacteriological enemy; either way, Neisser took the battle against the bug to heart. In fact, his efforts soon took on an obsessive and, eventually, even savage quality.” —Jackie Rosenheck, Doctor’s Review