Issue: World War I

29 May 2014 article

MT May 2014 WW1 banner

28 July 1914 was an inauspicious day. Its arrival marked the end of a fragile peace and the golden age that held European alliances together; it also marked an end to the certainties of the establishment and the Empires. I grew up during 1960-70s Britain, with the First World War a lived experience, passed on as vivid stories at the knees of grandparents, or as dark, unspoken silences that had shaped people's lives in unimaginable ways. Now, as a parent in the 21st century my perspective of this war has changed.

Our landscapes are still marked with the poignant names of those who lost their lives during ‘the war to end all wars’. These days my children attend a school built at the turn of the 20th century, which promised a bright future for those boys lucky enough to receive a grammar school education. Passing through the front door, black copperplate writing captures the lives of sons and brothers, lost during this ill-fated war.

In this edition of Microbiology Today we have sought to commemorate the start of the Great War. The suffering that occurred was the result of four years of conflict and strife. However, it was also caused by ravaging diseases that stalked the trenches. Rezak Drali, Philippe Brouqui and Didier Raoult describe the role the typhus epidemic played, which has a habit of always striking humanity at a time of great disaster. John Oxford vividly portrays the ‘perfect storm’ caused by a war and a global pandemic, which resulted in the deaths of over six million soldiers by war, and a shocking further 80 million civilians due to influenza. A debate that surrounded the medical basis of trench foot – a disease synonymous with warfare during the 1914-18 conflict – is outlined by Robert Atenstaedt. He presents evidence that shows this disease had no microbiological cause as had originally been proposed in 1916 by two French officers, Médicin Majors Victor Raymond and Jacques Parisot.

However, the First World War did offer opportunities for scientific progress. Gavin Thomas outlines the discovery of bacterial viruses (or bacteriophages) during this time, an important milestone in the history of microbiology. These findings broadened our understanding of the fundamental forms of life that exist in nature. The work undertaken by pioneering scientists such as Twort and d’Herelle evolved and underpins the work of modern day pioneering molecular biologists and geneticists. Their work has also provided a potential route to treat bacterial infections, which has seen a renaissance in the last decade as antibiotic resistance continues to increase. Preben Krabben provides an account of the beginning of what was to become one of the largest microbial fermentation processes in the world, namely acetone and butanol production.

This edition has mainly looked back 100 years to the start of the First World War. Charles Cockell has written a future-focused Comment for this issue. He provides details about a 500-year microbiology experiment to study and quantify the survival of desiccated organisms over century time-scales, testing hypotheses about the viability of micro-organisms and the influence of background ionizing radiation on long-term survival.

I hope you find this issue thought-provoking: our intention is to recognise the role of microbes in this terrible war and to recognise the role this conflict has played in the field of microbiology today.

‘The Sisters Buried at Lemnos’ poem by Vera Brittain alludes to the multifaceted suffering caused by this war, and it is a touching account of the sacrifices of women who also played their part in all aspects of this conflict. An excerpt is below.

Seldom they enter into song or story;
Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,
But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
Of women dead beneath a distant star.

No armies threatened in that lonely station,
They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,
But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,
And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.

Till mortal frailty could endure no longer
Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,
In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,
Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.


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Image: British soldiers in France during World War I. US Air Force/ Science Photo Library.