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Giving Thanks for Penicillin

Mary Jo Shannon
Mary Jo Shannon

One doctor’s appointment I can truly say I enjoyed was my annual visit to my allergist, Dr. Alexander McCausland, who took a “medical leave of absence” at age 93, due to the infirmities of advanced age. Despite his age, he kept up with the latest developments in medicine, and received many honors in the medical profession.  Visits were never rushed, for he scheduled sufficient time to talk with his patients, and took pleasure in recalling the changes he observed during his more than 67 years of practicing medicine.

He shared a personal story to illustrate how the discovery of penicillin changed our lives. On his left index finger he bore a scar, a reminder of an accident with an ax when he was twelve years old.

“I got a new ax for my birthday,” he said, “and I was using it to fix a gate when I accidently cut my finger.”

It didn’t seem to be a bad cut, and after it stopped bleeding, he thought it would be all right.

He didn’t know bacteria had invaded the wound and were multiplying. In a day or two his finger was throbbing, his head ached, and he had a fever.

A doctor cauterized the wound with silver nitrate, which destroyed the infected tissue, but did not kill the bacteria. Soon red streaks shot up his arm from the swollen finger.

“We know now that what I had was lymphangitis and lymphadenitis – an infection of the lymph nodes and lymph channels.,” he said.

If the bacteria reached the bloodstream, it could be fatal.  The doctor decided the arm would have to be amputated immediately to save his life. His parents were horrified, but agreed it was better to lose a limb than a life.

But when Alexander’s grandfather, General John McCausland, heard they planned to amputate, he stormed into the hospital shouting, “You will not take that boy’s arm off! I’ll take care of him myself.”  General McCausland remembered the horror of the battle of Cloyds Mountain during the Civil War, when arms and legs were stacked like cordwood. He refused to let that happen to his grandson. Alexander’s parents were frightened, but no one dared refuse the general, and they packed their son’s clothes and sent him off in the horse-drawn buggy with his grandfather.

Dr. McCausland recalled the treatment he received.  “He took me to his home and brought in a country doctor and paid him by the day. He had a lot of household help and they heated water night and day and kept hot compresses on my arm. And they used Hunter McGuire liniment. Hunter McGuire doctored “Stonewall” Jackson and was the chief surgeon of the Confederate Army.”

They soaked his arm and rubbed it with the liniment, which contained camphor and laudanum (a tincture of opium) and turpentine. They gave him calomel, a tasteless white liquid intended to purge his digestive tract.

Grampa would not give up, and soon Alexander began to heal. The red streaks and the fever disappeared. The doctor left and afterward Grampa took him to the doctor’s office to dress his arm..

Alexander was in the sixth grade, and the General, who taught at VMI, tutored him so he would not be behind in his studies when he went back to school.

“Every morning after breakfast he would hear my lessons. He was very strict and taught me like I was a VMI cadet,” Dr. McCausland said. When he was strong enough, Alexander and his grandfather rode horses together.  He liked to say he rode with the man who rode with “Stonewall”  Jackson.

Dr. McCausland died in March 2008 after a long life of service which might not have been possible except for the courage and drastic actions of his grandfather.  Today such a minor cut would be of little concern. Antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid would probably suffice. When we name the things for which we are thankful this Thanksgiving Day, let’s not forget the “small ones” – including penicillin.

By Mary Jo Shannon
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