Quoting at Length: Mark Twain, The Maha Kumbh Mela, Pasteur, and the demise of Felix D’Hérelle & Frederick Twort’s Phage Therapy.

February 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Mark Twain describing Benares and Agra, some time between January and April 1896.

“But I should get tired of seeing them wash their mouth with that dreadful water and drink it. In fact, I did get tired of it, and very early too. At one place where we halted for a while, the foul gush from a sewer was making the water turbid and murky all around, and there was a random corpse slopping around in it that had floated down from up country. Ten steps below that place stood a crowd of men, women, and comely young maidens waist-deep in the water and they were scooping it up in their hands and drinking it. Faith can certainly do wonders, and this is an instance of it. Those people were not drinking that fearful stuff to assuage thirst, but in order to purify their souls and the interior of their bodies. According to their creed, the Ganges water makes everything pure. The sewer-water was not an offense to them, the corpse did not revolt them; the sacred water had touched both, and both were now snow-pure, and could defile no one. The memory of that sight will always stay by me; but not by request.

A word further concerning the nasty but all purifying Ganges water. When we went to Agra, by and by, we happened there just in time to be in at the birth of a marvel and memorable scientific discovery… that in certain ways the foul and derided Ganges water is the most puissant purifier in the world! This curious fact, as I have said, had just been added to the treasury of modern science. It had long been noted as a strange thing that while Benares is often afflicted with the cholera she does not spread it beyond her borders. This could not be accounted for. Mr. Henkin, the scientist in the employ of the government of Agra concluded to examine the water. He went to Benares and made his tests. He got water at the mouths of the sewers where they empty into the river at the bathing-ghats; a cubic centimeter of it contained millions of germs; at the end of six hours they were all dead. He caught a floating corpse, towed it to the shore, and from beside it he dipped up water that was swarming with cholera germs; at the end of the six hours they were all dead. He added swarm after swarm of cholera germs to this water; within the six hours they always died, to the last sample. Repeatedly, he took pure well-water which was barren of animal life, and put into it a few cholera germs; they always began to propagate at once and always within six hours they swarmed and were numerable by millions upon millions.

For ages and ages the Hindus have had absolute faith that the water of the Ganges was absolutely pure…. The Hindus have been lauged at, these many generations, but the laughter will need to modify itself a little from now on.”

-From Mark Twain’s chapter “Ganges, The Great Purifier” in Following the Equator 

_65863068_km2-08feb2013(2) APTOPIX India Maha Kumbh

It has come and gone, the main bathing day of the Maha Kumbh Mela, the Mauni Amavasya Snan. This particular Kumbh Mela, marks a celestial alignment that happens only once every 144 years. We just had dinner with a friend who is wrapping up a survey of the Ganges that examines the river as a material and cultural system held together by a variety of hydrological infrastructures. He had just returned from documenting the Maha Kumbh, one of the last things he’s going to do before wrapping up his book project—which is not his dissertation. How I envy his productivity.

Anyway, I was tempted to go to the Kumbh Mela, though the mere idea of it made me anxious. I couldn’t really get a sense of it from the hundreds of photos I’ve already seen. Mostly because Allahabad appears to be pretty flat—even the satellite images are disappointing. Every photo emerging from the mela was a tangle of ecstatic ash covered naga sadhus wearing chains of marigolds and sandalwood beads and smoking the ganj. These photos could have been taken in a group of 10,000 as opposed to one of 30 million—the estimated number of pilgrims at the Kumbh on that holiest day. That is to say these photos are nothing like Weegee’s powerful images of Coney Island crowds in the 40s, taken from some bravely scaled vantage point (probably the parachute jump). For some reason the fact that I could not see the crowd in some comprehensively visual way made me more nervous about it. O & I were supposed to grab a peak of it all on a visit to a friend of his in Allahabad, but illness and other transportation related circumstances intervened and we weren’t able to go. I still have trouble imagining it… 30 million people in one place (though on the main bathing day only about 8 million actually bathe). All of them jumped into a river with levels of coliform bacteria roughly 3000x what the World Health Organization considers safe for bathing. That is to say it wasn’t only teeming humanity that made me anxious, but the teeming microorganisms that came along with them. And I hate that this enormous holy festival boils down to just this for me… but alas, I am a woman of science, that is to say of very weak faith.

Why are there not massive cases of cholera? I wonder this every time I see a Delhiite enjoying a plate full of delicious golgappas invariably made with the local water. Immunity, I know accounts for most of it, but after some further investigation, I found a very interesting twist that expanded my very limited knowledge of various forms of immunity. Apparently in the colonial times of not-so-olde, even the officers of the British East India Co. who treated their native subordinates as mystical know-nothings insisted that they only fill their barrels with Ganges water because they claimed, it would never putrefy. Buy WHY????  The answer may lie in the Ganges itself.

What Mr. Henkin (the scientist that Twain mentions above) observed at the close of the nineteenth century… he could not yet see or explain. But  in 1917, one French Canadian scientist, who conducted his research between India and the Institut Pasteur discovered a curious microorganism—the bacteriophage. The Ganges contained an unusually high number of bacteriophages. Below is an electron micrograph showing bacteriophages attacking a bacteria. These were the organisms responsible for clearing Mr. Henkin’s samples of their coliform bacteria. Right around the same time there was a wild scramble to develop anti-biotics, D’Hérelle and a Georgian by the name of George Eliava were both cultivating experimental batches of phage cocktails.  This early form of phage therapy proved to be highly unreliable (but so were early batches of anti-biotics). Anti-biotics, however proved easier to standardize and killed a wider variety of bacteria (both good and bad), while phages killed very specific bacteria (working a bit like a lock and key). In any case, because of the effectiveness of antibiotics the research was tabled for quite some time, though Eli Lilly did dabble in phage therapy research in the 1940s.

However, (according to Wikipedia) the USSR (where eventually Eliava would establish the George Eliava institute in Tblisi) remained relatively isolated from Western advancements in anti-biotic technology. As a result, research into phage therapy continued and was used to treat soldiers afflicted with gangrene and dysentery, with much success. Because of the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria and because anti-biotics wreaks havoc on the beneficial flora of the tummy (my brother often has frightening tales of MRSA and C. Difficile), interest in phages is once again on the rise. Probiotics which are different of course, but the result of similar thinking are already wildly popular… my mom… the Martinez family drug czar is already touting benefits of Align the new probiotic wonderdrug for treating IBS.


But the natural occurence of the phages—that which makes the Ganges so ‘miraculously’ pure despite the crush of humanity that both bathes in and draws from its banks—is constantly under threat. The specific geographic origin of the Ganges bacteriophages are unknown, and the various dams and irrigation works that are draining the Ganges from various points along its path almost certainly endanger their abundance. This threatens not only scientific study of the phages, but also the ecology that makes the Ganges the Ganges. The lesson learned here is that there is an order in the world, separate from the one we impose upon it, and we still have so much to observe. Namaste.


Oh yeah, and let this new found microbe-philia mark a very Happy Happy Valentine’s Day!!!!!


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You are currently reading Quoting at Length: Mark Twain, The Maha Kumbh Mela, Pasteur, and the demise of Felix D’Hérelle & Frederick Twort’s Phage Therapy. at spargel&fraise.


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