November 7, 1900: Fishy Oysters; 1985: College Bans Water

November 7, 1900New York Times headline—Fishy Oysters. London—“The Medical Officer of Health for Folkestone has reported that, having reason to suspect that a case of illness there arose from the consumption of oysters, he sent a sample for bacteriological examination to the Clinical Research Association. Although the analysis did not reveal bacillus typhi, it proved that in the shells, and also in the oysters themselves, there was bacillus coli communis, a bacillus found in sewage.”

November 7, 1985New York Times headline–College Bans Suspect Water.  Dartmouth, Mass.—“Southeastern Massachusetts University has ordered a ban on drinking the water on campus, suspecting that the water caused students and staff members to become ill, officials said. More than 300 people have suffered stomach cramps and vomiting in the last week. The ban took effect Monday night.”

CommentaryIn 1900, public health officials were getting comfortable using the new science of bacteriology. The unique genius of Dr. Robert Koch and his colleagues created new tools to assess the sanitary quality of food (like oysters) and water. These tools were being used on both sides of the Atlantic. Bacillus coli communis (also called B. coli) was the early name for what we now call total coliforms. The tests were quite different then as compared to now. Gas production in dextrose broth was considered a presumptive positive result (as opposed to using lactose broth). However, the story on this same date in 1985 shows that we have a ways to go. Failures in multi-barrier protection can result in disease and death even in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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