Penicillin and the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston

by Nancy Walsh

The recent report of the deliberate infection of Guatemalans with syphilis in the 1940s to see if penicillin could cure and prevent transmission of the disease was a reminder of just how short the time has been since most infectious diseases were untreatable. Penicillin — discovered by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming in 1928 but not available for clinical use until the 1940s — initially was largely reserved for use by the military, saving many wounded soldiers on the battlefields of World War II who otherwise would have died of their infected wounds.

At the time, few civilians had been treated with penicillin, until a Saturday night in late November of 1942, when a catastrophic fire broke out in a popular Boston nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove. That day, a much anticipated football game between archrivals Boston College and Notre Dame was played, with the home team strongly favored to win. A festive post-game celebration had been planned by B.C. fans, but was canceled after their disappointing rout by the out-of-towners.

The nightclub was packed anyway, with many servicemen in town for the weekend, and when fire broke out most were trapped — the club had only a single, revolving door entrance. The Boston newspaper headlines the next morning announced that 450 people had died in the worst fire in the country in 40 years. Another 42 died in the days that followed from injuries sustained in the fire.

Most of the victims were taken to the city’s large hospitals, and many were already dead or succumbed shortly after arrival. Those who had been sent to Massachusetts General Hospital and survived their initial injuries were given a “miracle drug,” as penicillin was soon called, a small amount of which had been rushed to the hospital from the Merck manufacturing facility in Rahway, N.J. The drug could quickly cure the severe, often lethal, staphylococcal infections that patients with burn-damaged skin can acquire, and the Mass General physicians managed to save far more victims than had been possible previously.

In my years as a medical writer I’ve written a good deal about infections and antibiotics, and my father often told me the story of the Cocoanut Grove fire. In 1942 he was serving in the Navy in Boston, and as a lifelong B.C. fan, had intended to attend the victory party. After his team lost, he stayed home that night — so I got to be here, and my father lived another 63 years.

Nancy Walsh is a MedPage Today contributing writer and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.

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