Last week U. S. scientists were sorry to hear that Felix d'Herelle, famed Canadian-born bacteriologist, had re-signed the Yale professorship of protobiology which he had held since 1928. A pioneer in the study of the bacteriophage (bacteria destroyer), Dr. d'Herelle wants to elaborate his work in the clinical field. For this he may go to the new institute for infectious diseases at Tiflis, South Russia.
Dr. d'Herelle's resignation made no headlines, but in New York a development in his specialty did. Tucked away in the New York Aquarium's annual report a Sun newshawk had discovered this modest paragraph:
"Bacteriophage. Pursuing the question of the significance of bacteriophage in small balanced aquaria, C. W. Coates found an interesting clinical possibility regarding certain types of dermatitis. Thus far a number of volunteers obtained an unexpected amount of relief, but the study has not progressed sufficiently far to state more than the fact that these volunteers were enthusiastic about the results."
The Sun investigated, promptly reported a sensational discovery which might be a major contribution to medicine. Other newspapers followed suit. Scientists were interested but less exuberant. Charles Marcus Breder Jr. is the Aquarium's able young assistant director. After the War, which kept him from going to college, he got a job with the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries, went to the Aquarium in 1921. Three years ago he began to investigate the reason why unchanged water in balanced aquaria$#134; sometimes does not become foul. He discovered an active bacteriophage both in old aquarium water and in the intestinal contents of fish (in this case, small-mouthed black bass).
In working on this problem Ichthyologist Breder had the help of another young man who had never outgrown his childhood interest in polliwogs. He, Christopher William Coates, had also gone into the Army instead of to college, but had kept up his study of fish during the after years in which he was earning a living in the radio business. The discovery set Fishman Coates to thinking. If the phage destroyed bacteria in aquarium water. why shouldn't it destroy them in human infections?
From the intestinal contents of fish he prepared a concentrated solution of the bacteriophage. Then he deliberately set about getting his own hands infected. He dipped them repeatedly in his phage solution, soon saw them healing up. Word of his success brought other skin sufferers to the Aquarium. One man said his affliction had resisted treatment for 20 years. His hands were so sore and scaly that he could not close them. After plunging them in the phage solution several times a week for three months he could grip a golf club. Last week Researcher Coates had 18 other favorable treatments to report.
Of the significance of their work honest Messrs. Breder and Coates would only say last week: "We know we've got something. It's up to the bacteriologists and dermatologists to carry on and find out what it is." Chief fear of Researcher Coates last week was that news of his work might set skin sufferers everywhere to dipping themselves in convenient goldfish or guppy bowls. Bacteriophage may or may not be present in the water of an aquarium. But even if present it is too weak to be of any therapeutic value.