Thursday, May 26, 2016

Something that Probably Never Happened

I read, a lot, the following quote attributed to the U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart from a speech in 1967:
“The time has come to close the book on infectious diseases. We have basically wiped out infection in the United States.” 
The quote is often used in the context of how naive Dr. William Stewart - and the scientific community consensus at the time - was about the ubiquity and tenacity of infectious diseases.  The supposed motivation for the quote was the rise in use and effectiveness of antibiotics, which essentially "closed the book" on disease.  We have the cure!

Looking back from 2016, we see how ridiculous Dr. Stewarts' quote is.  Antibiotic resistance is now a global looming threat.  HIV/AIDS entered the U.S. a year before Dr. Stewart's supposed speech but t wouldn't be discovered for another 15 years.  And innumerable other infectious diseases have been discovered in the intervening years, including Ebola virus, norovirus, and Legonella pneumophila to name a very few.

So it is obvious that Dr. Stewarts' quote is ridiculous.  But what's less obvious is that Dr. Stewart probably never said it.  Bradford Spellberg discusses his failure to ever find a primary source for the quote in a 2008 comment in Clinical Infectious Diseases.  Perhaps its time to "close the book" on maligning Dr. Stewart.  Spellberg gives plenty of other examples of prestigious scientists who incorrectly assumed the age of infection was over - let's use them instead.

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