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Category Archives: Medical History

Cancer Isn’t a Modern Disease

What is cancer? You know the term and odds are great that you know someone personally who has suffered from a member of this constellation of diseases. But what exactly is it?

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Cancer is basically a genetic disease in that something changes in the DNA inside certain cells and this, in turn, disrupts their normal functions. These changes might result in uncontrolled growth and this can cause problems simply by the tumor’s size and location. The cancerous tissues might obstruct a bowel or a bile duct, or compress brain cells and increase the pressure inside the cranium, or erode into nearby organs of blood vessels. Others changes within these cells might alter their internal workings so that they no longer function as intended or they might produce chemicals or hormones that alter the function of other cells within the body. Cancer comes in many forms.

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What causes cancer? This has been the subject of debate, as well as a tremendous amount of research, for many many years. We have some answers, but there are even more questions. We know that things such as cigarette smoking, exposure to the sun, certain chemicals, and many other things can trigger these genetic changes within cells that can lead to cancers of various types.

Medicine has made tremendous strides in our understanding of cancer and in our methods of early detection, diagnosis, and treatment. There are programs for the early detection of breast and colon cancer and newer treatment protocols have revolutionized the approach to these malignancies. The progress in leukemia and lymphoma treatment, as compared to when I was in medical school, has been nothing short of astounding. 

We often think of cancer as a modern scourge, but cancer is not a new disease. Not by a long shot. It’s been around for many centuries. Evidence for cancers have been found in Egyptian mummies and a recent report from Live Science underscores that.

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Did “Tourista” Kill the Aztecs?

Many people who travel to other countries end up suffering from Tourista, or Traveler’s Diarrhea, a gastrointestinal upset that is manifested by diarrhea and sometimes nausea and vomiting. It’s due in many cases to E. coli, which is found everywhere. Various regions will have different strains of E. coli. Residents of the area are able to live quite compatibly with it. The problem arises when you travel to a new area and are exposed to a different strain. Until the body readjusts to this foreign strain, gastrointestinal symptoms can occur. Usually, this is mild and inconvenient and after a few days everything settles down and life goes on.

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Not so with the Aztecs. In 1545, an epidemic swept through the Aztec nation killing millions, perhaps as much as 80% of the population. Twenty years earlier an epidemic of smallpox had come through and damaged the population and 20 years later another epidemic swept through killing another huge portion of the population. There have been many infectious processes indicted for the 1545 plague, which the Aztecs called cocoliztli. Smallpox, measles, mumps, and various other infectious entities have been blamed for this. But what if it was actually a gastrointestinal bacterium that did the damage?

The symptoms the victims suffered seem to have been gastrointestinal. Apparently, there was bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea, and splotches on the skin. These symptoms and signs suggest a form of enteritis and that’s exactly what the bacterium salmonella does.

New evidence suggests that it might be a strain of salmonella that caused this problem, in particular, salmonella Paratyphi C. Genetic research using DNA obtained from the teeth of those who succumbed to the epidemic indicate that this might be the case. Where it came from is another question. Did it come with the influx of Europeans? Or perhaps extend south from northern Mexico? This is still being debated and researched but it does appear that salmonella may have been the culprit in the epidemic that destroyed the Aztec Empire.

Salmonella has been responsible for other public health crises, one of the most famous being Mary Mallon, aka  Typhoid Mary. In this situation, the type of salmonella was salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever.

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The Mystery of Chopin’s Heart

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Did Frederic Chopin die from Tubercular Pericarditis? And what the heck is that anyway?

Pericarditis is an inflammation has occurred of the pericardium, the sac that contains the heart. Most often it is due to a viral infection but there are many others causes. One of the worst is tuberculosis (TB).

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Tubercular Thickening of the Pericardium

 

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X-Ray Showing Thickened Pericardium
(White ring around heart shadow)

Tuberculosis has wreaked havoc in humans for centuries. It has been found in Egyptian mummies and has devastated entire populations. Treatment didn’t appear until the 20th century and in recent years new, more malignant forms have appeared. Even after several millennia, it remains a difficult medical problem.

It attacks the lungs and slowly destroys the tissues, leading to cough, fatigue, weight loss, and muscle wasting—-the reason it was called “the consumption.” It, at times, literally consumed the sufferer.

When it spreads to the heart, particularly the pericardium, it can quickly become deadly. A thick viscous fluid collects in the pericardial sac, compresses the heart, and interferes with its function as a pump. This fluid can also solidify into a leathery trap around the heart so that even survivors of the initial infection can suffer severe, long-term problems that we term constrictive pericarditis—-the encasement restricts cardiac filling and thus effects pumping.

Recent studies suggest that this is what happened to Chopin. His heart took a strange and convoluted journey. He had requested that at his death that his heart be removed and returned to his native Warsaw, Poland. When he died in Paris in 1849, his heart was indeed removed, placed in a crystal jar, and encased in a stone pillar at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. In a recent examination, researchers found evidence that suggested he had suffered from TB pericarditis.

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Holy Cross Church

 

Burking Still Lives After 200 Years

Asphyxia is the interruption of oxygen (O2) supply to the body, particularly the brain. Normally, air contains O2 and, when breathed in, it passes into the blood, using hemoglobin as a transport molecule, where it is distributed to the tissues. Any interruption of this delivery chain can lead to death from asphyxia.

The air might be deficient in oxygen such as at high altitude or when another gas such as carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulates, depressing the O2 content to dangerous levels. Or flow into the mouth and nose could be restricted by smothering, choking, or strangulation, or by anything that restricts the expansion of the chest. Or the inhaled air could contain a toxin such as carbon monoxide (CO) or cyanide (CN), and these, in turn, interfere with O2 delivery to the tissues.

Burking is the term applied to asphyxial deaths that result from someone sitting on another in a fashion that restricts breathing. The victim dies from asphyxia. This is a form of Mechanical Asphyxia, where the movement of the chest wall is restricted to the point that breathing isn’t possible. Burking refers to the famous case of Burke and Hare.

 

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From FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

Applying Pressure: Mechanical Asphyxia

Mechanical asphyxia results when some external force applied to the body prevents the expansion of the chest and leaves the victim unable to breathe. A person trapped beneath a heavy object, such as a car or a collapsed wall or ceiling, can die because the force of the external pressure prevents the victim from taking in a breath.

A boa constrictor kills in exactly this way. This muscular species of snake wraps itself around its prey. Each time the prey exhales, the snake coils a little tighter. So, each successive breath becomes increasingly shallower until the prey can’t take another breath. Death follows quickly.

 

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Suffocation by “Burking” 

Experts have come to know a particular form of mechanical suffocation as Burking. William Burke was a merchant of sorts around Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1800s. In 1827, he hooked up with William Hare, who ran a beggars hotel in the village of Tanners Close. In December of that year, a resident of the hotel died, and Burke arranged to sell the body to a Dr. Knox, who needed corpses for his dissection demonstrations. Burke and Hare loaded a coffin with bark and buried it in front of many witnesses. They then delivered the body to Dr. Knox and received seven pounds and ten shillings. The men struck an arrangement whereby Burke and Hare would deliver the doctor more bodies for eight pounds in summer and ten in winter. (Apparently grave robbing was more difficult when the ground was cold.)

Burke and Hare began digging up fresh corpses for their new enterprise, but the local populace refused to die fast enough for the greedy men. They began kidnapping and killing people who were not likely to be missed. Burke sat on his victims, holding their mouths and noses closed until they suffocated, after which Burke and Hare delivered the corpse and collected their fee.

A lodger at the hotel notified authorities when she discovered the sixteenth and last victim beneath a bed. Police arrested the two men. Hare then cut a deal and testified against Burke. Burke was convicted and experienced asphyxia for himself when he was hanged on January 28, 1829, an event attended by as many as 40,000 people.

 

Burking is alive nearly 200 years later. It seems that 325-pound woman sat on her 9-year-old cousin to punish her for some indiscretion. Unfortunately, the child died from mechanical asphyxia—-“Burking.”

 

What Killed the Aztecs? Lessons From Typhoid Mary.

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History tells us that in 1519 Hernando Cortes reached the shores of Mexico where he encountered the Aztecs. It has been estimated that around 25 million Aztecs existed at that time. But the arrival of the conquistadors changed everything. History also indicates that two epidemics, one in the 1540s and the other in the 1570s, crippled, essentially destroyed, the Aztec Empire. It is estimated that 10 to 20,000,000 Aztecs succumbed to some form of infectious process.

The Aztecs called these epidemics cocoliztli, their word for pestilence. Historians have long argued about what caused this horrific outbreak. At various times, researchers have suggested that the culprit was measles, mumps, smallpox, and several other disorders.

It’s important to note that epidemics of this size occur when an organism is introduced into a population that has no immunity to it. The Aztecs had never confronted such infectious agents and therefore had no individual or community resistance. The same thing happened in Europe when the Plague made its appearance. The most famous of these epidemics we call The Black Death. It killed millions and changed history. Same was true for the Aztecs.

But what exactly happened?

A new study suggests that the pathogen responsible just might be Salmonella, specifically S. Paratyphi C. DNA analysis indicates that this organism can be traced back to Europe and might indeed have traveled in the bodies of the conquistadors and infected the unprotected Aztec population. More research is needed but this is an intriguing development.

You’ve heard of salmonella I’m sure. It’s occasionally picked up in contaminated food and water by travelers to foreign countries and on some occasions. it can become a devastating illness and can even be deadly. A famous US epidemic occurred in the early 1900s when Mary Mallon, a healthy carrier of the organism and a cook, spread typhoid to numerous people. She became known as Typhoid Mary and her story is very interesting. Typhoid is caused by the organism Salmonella typhi, which places it in the same family as the organism that might have taken down the Aztec Empire.

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TYPHOID MARY

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Posted by on September 28, 2017 in Cause & Manner of Death, Medical History

 

In the 1800s, Wagon Train Travel Could Be Deadly

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Many brave souls headed West during the 1800’s, often by wagon train. They fought weather, disease, starvation, hostile folks of all types, and potentially deadly injuries. Medicine was crude, basically non-existent, and many died along the way.

Check out my latest Q&A on the Suspense Magazine Blog:

Could Death From Bleeding Be Delayed For Several Days After a Frontier Wagon Wheel Accident?

Read the answer and listen to the expanded audio information here:

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/07/01/could-death-from-bleeding-be-delayed-for-several-days-after-a-frontier-wagon-wheel-accident/

This was one of the many clever questions included in my first Q&A book—MURDER & MAYHEM

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Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Check out the new posts John Raab of Suspense Magazine and I put together. Read the Q&As and listen to the expanded discussions. Hope each proves helpful for your crime fiction.

Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/20/d-p-lyles-forensic-file-episode-1/

In 1863, Could An Autopsy Accurately Determine the Cause of Death?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/01/09/in-1863-could-an-autopsy-accurately-determine-the-cause-of-death-d-p-lyle-answers-this/

Can My Female Character Cause Her Pregnancy To Become “Stone Baby” By Shear Will?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/31/can-my-female-character-cause-her-pregnancy-to-become-stone-baby-by-sheer-will/

More to come.

Want more cool questions from crime writers? Check out my three Q&A books.

M&M 200X300

More Info and List of Included Questions

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More Info and List of Included Questions

MF&F 200X320

More Info and List of Included Questions

 
 
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