What Do Vibrators & Sepsis Have in Common?

Answer: The movie Hysteria and very little else (but exceptions unfortunately exist). 

I can't resist commenting on mentions of infectious diseases in popular media. As I've written before, these mentions often give a snapshot of how the general public views a particular topic whether it is HIV, Ebola, or influenza.

Hysteria is a somewhat fictional account of the invention of the vibrator in 19th century England as well aa a critique of the diagnosing of hysteria--a nebulous term that, when applied to a woman, horrifically could led to a hysterectomy for no reason. The film accurately depicts hysteria as akin to blood-letting, leeches (which do have a few legitimate medicinal uses), and the "laudable pus" that emanated from infected wounds.

In the movie Dr. Mortimer Granville, the real inventor of the vibrator, is portrayed as an innovative, evidence-based, and modern physician railing against treatments that are ineffective or do harm. In one of the opening scenes, Dr. Granville has an important exchange with a nurse instructing her to remove dirty bandages from wounds because of the risk of sepsis, a word derived from the Greek term for "to make rotten".

As an infectious disease and critical care medicine physician, sepsis--a systemic inflammatory state induced by infection with microorganisms--is something I can't avoid seeing upon setting foot in the hospital but the concept was completely foreign to medicine until the germ theory was developed and accepted. No embrace of antisepsis and sterility could really occur if there was no realization that microbes could cause disease. "I don't think I have those," the patient in the scene remarks and indeed it would be impossible for a person without the context of the germ theory to imagine invisible organisms as being responsible for a state of disease.

The senior physician remarks that "germ theory is poppycock" to which Dr. Granville retorts "Lister has proved it."

Today that microorganism can cause disease is not even greeting with disbelief from children, who rush to have Band-Aids applied to the slightest abrasion. In the end, germ theory--the development of which I hope to write a lot more about--was not poppycock but the result of the synthesis and integration of many facts by the likes of Lister, Pasteur, Koch, Semmelweis, Leeuwenhoek, and others. 

This small vignette from a movie largely unrelated to the topic gives a brief glimpse into what those heroic individuals had to overcome in order to usher in an era of vaccines, antibiotics, the entire medical speciality of infectious diseases, and ever increasing life spans.