Pathogenic Germs Which Are Not Strictly Parasitic

( Originally Published 1897 )

Recognising that bacteria may produce poisons, we readily see that it is not always necessary that they should be parasites in order to produce trouble. In their ordinary growth in Nature such bacteria will produce no trouble.

The poisons will be produced in decaying material but will seldom be taken into the human body. These poisons, produced in the first stages of putrefaction, are oxidized by further stages of decomposition into harmless products. But should it happen that some of these bacteria obtained a chance to grow vigorously for a while in organic products that are subsequently swallowed as man's food, it is plain that evil results might follow. If such food is swallowed by man after the bacteria have produced their poisonous bodies, it will tend to produce an immediate poisoning of his system. The effect may be sudden and severe if considerable quantity of the poisonous material is swallowed, or slight but protracted if small quantities are repeatedly consumed in food. Such instances are not uncommon. Well-known examples are cases of ice-cream poisoning, poisoning from eating cheese or from drinking milk, or in not a few instances from eating fish or meats within which bacteria have had opportunity for growth. In all these cases the poison is swallowed in quantity sufficient to give rise quickly to severe symptoms, sometimes resulting fatally, and at other times passing off as soon as the body succeeds in throwing off the poisons. In other cases still, however, the amount of poison swallowed may be very slight, too slight to produce much effect unless the same be consumed repeatedly. All such trouble may be attributed to fermented or partly decayed food. It is difficult to distinguish such instances from others produced in a slightly different way, as follows:

It may happen that the bacteria which grow in food products continue to grow in the food even after it is swallowed and has passed into the stomach or intestines. This appears particularly true of milk bacteria. Under these conditions the bacteria are not in any proper sense parasitic, since they are simply living in and feeding upon the same food which they consume outside the body, and are not feeding upon the tissues of man. The poisons which they produce will continue to be developed as long as the bacteria continue to grow, whether in a milk pail or a human stomach. If now the poisons are absorbed by the body, they may produce a mild or severe disease which will be more or less lasting, continuing perhaps as long as the same food and the same bacteria are supplied to the individual. The most important disease of this class appears to be the dreaded cholera infantum, so common among infants who feed upon cow's milk in warm weather. It is easy to understand the nature of this disease when we remember the great number of bacteria in milk, especially in hot weather, and when we remember that the delicate organ-ism of the infant will be thrown at once into disorder by slight amounts of poison which would have no appreciable effect upon the stronger adult. We can easily understand, further, how the disease readily yields to treatment if care is taken to sterilize the milk given to the patient.

We do not know today the extent of the troubles which are produced by bacteria of this sort. They will, of course, be chiefly connected with our food products, and commonly, though not always, will affect the digestive functions. It is probable that many of the cases of summer diarrhoea are produced by some such cause, and if they could be traced to their source would be found to be produced by bacterial poisons swallowed with food or drink, or by similar poisons produced by bacteria growing in such food after it is swallowed by the individual. In hot weather, when bacteria are so abundant everywhere and growing so rapidly, it is impossible to avoid such dangers completely without exercising over all food a guard which would be decidedly oppressive. It is well to bear in mind, however, that the most common and most dangerous source of such poisons is milk or its products, and for this reason one should hesitate to drink milk in hot weather unless it is either quite fresh or has been boiled to destroy its bacteria.


This class of pathogenic bacteria includes those which actually invade the body and feed upon its tissues instead of living simply upon swallowed food. It is difficult, however, to draw any sharp line separating the two classes. The bacteria which cause diphtheria for instance, do not really invade the body. They grow in the throat, attached to its walls, and are confined to this external location or to the superficial tissues. This bacillus is, in short, only found in the mouth and throat, and is practically confined to the socalled false membranes. It never enters any of the tissues of the body, although attached to the mucous membrane. It grows vigorously in this membrane, and there secretes or in some way produces extremely violent poisons. These poisons are then absorbed by the go, body and give rise to the general symptoms of the disease. Much the same is true of the bacillus which causes tetanus or lockjaw. This bacillus is commonly inoculated into the flesh of the victim by a wound made with some object which has been lying upon the earth where the bacillus lives. The bacillus grows readily after being inoculated, but it is localized at the point of the wound, without invading the tissue to any extent. It produces, however, during its growth several poisons which have been separated and studied. Among them are some of the most violent poi-sons of which we have any knowledge. While the bacillus grows in the tissues around the wound it secretes these poisons, which are then absorbed by the body generally. Their poisoning effects produce the violent symptoms of the disease. Of much the same nature is Asiatic cholera. This is caused by a bacillus which is able to grow rapidly in the intestines, feeding perhaps in part on the food in the intestines and perhaps in part upon the body secretions. To a slight extent also it appears to be able to invade the tissues of the body, for the bacilli are found in the walls of the intestines. But it is not a proper parasite, and the fatal disease it produces is the result of the absorption of the poisons secreted in the intestines.

It is but a step from this to the true parasites.

Typhoid fever, for example, is a disease produced by bacteria which grow in the intestines, but which also invade the tissues more extensively than the cholera germs (Fig. 30). They do not invade the body generally, however, but become somewhat localized in special glands like the liver, the spleen, etc. Even here they do not appear to find a very favourable condition, for they do not grow extensively in these places. They are likely to be found in the spleen in small or centres, but groups stained, showing the not generally distributed through it. Wherever they grow they produce poison, which has been called typho toxin, and it is this poison chiefly which gives rise to the fever.

Quite a considerable number of the pathogenic germs are, like the typhoid bacillus, more or less confined to special places. Instead of distributing themselves through the body after they find entrance, they are restricted to special organs. The most common example of a parasite of this sort is the tuberculosis bacillus, the cause of consumption, scrofula, white swelling, lupus, etc. (Fig. 31). Although this bacillus is very common and is able to attack almost any organ in the body, it is usually very restricted in growth. It may become localized in a small gland, a single joint, a small spot in the lungs, or in the glands of the mesentery, the other parts of the body remaining free from infection. Not infrequently the whole trouble is thus confined to such a small locality that nothing serious results. But in other instances the bacilli may after a time slowly or rapidly distribute themselves from these centres, attacking more and more of the body until perhaps fatal results follow in the end. This disease is therefore commonly of very slow progress.

Again, we have still other parasites which are not thus confined, but which, as soon as they enter the body, produce a general infection, at-tacking the blood and perhaps nearly all tissues simultaneously. The most typical example of this sort is anthrax or malignant pustule, a disease fortunately rare in man (Fig. 32). Here the bacilli multiply in the blood, and very soon a general and fatal infection of the whole body arises, resulting from the abundance of the bacilli everywhere. Some of the obscure diseases known as blood poisoning appear to be of the same general nature, these diseases resulting from a very general invasion of certain pathogenic bacteria.

In general, then, we see that the so-called germ diseases result from the action upon the body of poisons produced by bacterial growth. Differences in the nature of these poisons produce differences in the character of the disease, and differences in the parasitic powers of the different species of bacteria produce wide differences in the course of the diseases and their relation to external phenomena.

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