Celebrating a family member who fought hard to uncover the objective reality of what caused disease

I wrote this article for Daily Maverick in 2020.

This is a time of loneliness and deep uncertainty. For the first time in a generation, we are thrust into the very core of our human vulnerability. For now, we live as people did for thousands of years before us, smitten dumb by the power of nature, unable to protect ourselves from its invincibility.

We have no solution so far to the cruelty of the coronavirus. We are thrust helplessly on the most ancient of remedies: To hide and live in hope.

This is a way of life that for the last six, or even seven decades or so, we largely believed or at least assumed we had vanquished. We had eradicated terrifying viruses like polio and smallpox and, with the advent of antibiotics, we could largely ignore the overwhelming threat that bacteria had posed in almost every moment of our daily lives.

These were all hard-fought victories achieved by open, enquiring minds and the rigours of the scientific method. And yet, so many of them were ridiculed or even bitterly opposed by the political and social consensus of their day.

Deep in our family history, we carry the memory of someone who fought hard to uncover the objective reality of what caused disease, rather than meekly accept the beliefs of the day. I never knew my great-grandfather, Dr Ernest Wende – he died in 1910, which is an almost unimaginably long time ago – but I am fiercely proud of the legacy he left.

Ernest Wende was the eldest of nine children. He was born in 1853 and grew up and worked on a farm in Western New York. He studied medicine at the University of Buffalo, and then went on to study further in Berlin and Vienna, where he encountered what was then the emerging germ theory of disease.

He returned to Buffalo and opened his own practice in 1887. He was one of the most scientifically-educated doctors of his time. However, he and other practitioners like him were derided as “bug doctors”. The notion of bacteria or even viruses causing disease was regarded as foolish nonsense.

It was only when he became Health Commissioner in Buffalo in 1897 that he was able to act on what he knew, and not on what others mistakenly believed. He quickly reduced a typhoid outbreak in the city by having the water supply tested. On finding clear evidence of the typhus bacteria, he had the source of water changed, despite the reluctance of the mayor and the water board who balked at the expense.  Many lives were protected.

His real battle, though, was to save the lives of babies. At the time, mothers used a long-necked nursing bottle to feed their children milk.  When Wende looked at the rubber necks through his microscope, he realised the inescapable truth: It was impossible to properly clean the long rubber tubes and the milk being fed to the babies was contaminated by bacteria. Children were dying from the subsequent infection.

He proposed a law banning such bottles, and according to an old newspaper article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, was met with contempt and the power of vested interests.  The manufacturers of the bottles and the pharmacies that sold them were outraged at his proposal. Some local politicians ridiculed the whole notion. One argued for the primacy of tradition and a way of life: “There are many healthy specimens of manhood here today that sucked at the end of the long tube, and it is used for the young of animals, too.”

Another argued that as it was good for the raising of pigs, it would serve equally well for babies. A final objection was that of the old defence of “common sense” in opposition to change: “Can’t you blow in the thing and clean it?” he asked.

“No,” was the only meaningful answer. The law passed and the number of infant deaths recorded in the city soon dropped from between 400 and 500 to some 240. Clearer statistics are lost in the mists of time, but the reality is clear: Babies were dying from germs living in the rubber necks. Once they were banned, fewer babies died. No amount of anger, suspicion and frustration at the truth could change that.

The ironies of it all echo down the years. The parallels with many of today’s political and social absurdities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic are horrifyingly obvious.

We don’t yet know precisely what the power of modern microscopes and data-based science will reveal about how to combat our plague. But the next time you see a baby being fed with a simple plastic bottle, without a long rubber tube, remind yourself how long and hard the fight was to achieve that victory against human vulnerability to disease. We still have a long way to go from what we hope to what we really know.

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.