The flu pandemic of 1918 was horrific. Millions of people died (by some estimates 4% of the world’s population), and the medical establishment worked feverishly to find a cause and a treatment. There were many dead-ends in the search for the cause of the flu. One of the most enduring errors was the attribution of the pandemic to a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae (H flu). It turned out that the flu was actually caused by a virus rather than a bacterium, but H. flu is still an important discovery. The fight against influenza was in many ways successful (although too late for the 1918 pandemic)—it led to the discovery of influenza and many other viruses, and the development of effective influenza vaccines. It is analogous to the discovery of HIV and the advances in science and medicine pioneered by HIV researchers. Influenza birthed the field of virology.
But what if we had stopped at one of our dead ends? What if we had held to the belief that H flu caused influenza, or that HTLV-1 caused AIDS? In science, dead-ends usually reveal themselves—eventually. As new discoveries fail to appear, scientists re-examine their underlying assumptions. H flu was found in many flu victims, but not all. Other researchers found that fluids that were run through filters that stopped bacteria were still infectious (in human volunteers!), leading them to conclude that there must be an infectious particle smaller than a bacterium. A quarter of a century after the Great Influenza pandemic, effective vaccines against influenza were in production.
While the world was torn by the first “modern” war, and influenza destroyed military and civilian populations, doctors were trying everything that might help. In the U.S., sera and vaccines against various agents such as pneumococcus were produced and used with some efficacy, but many other immunologic treatments were dead-ends. One of these dead-ends was named Oscillococcinum.
A French doctor, Joseph Roy, was one of the witnesses to the 1918 pandemic who worked to find a cause. Unfortunately, his thinking was rooted in a mix of modern ideas and ancient—the knowledge that there were bacteria that caused disease, and the ancient vitalist ideas of the previous centuries. He believed that he observed in flu victims, and the victims of many other diseases, an unusual bacterium which was round (“coccus”) and appeared to vibrate (“oscillate”). Anyone who has spent significant time on a light microscope knows that there’s plenty of oscillation—it’s called “Brownian motion” and is not a characteristic of any particular object under the lens but of the medium itself. Roy, using the modern terms and equipment but not modern knowledge, felt that this “new bacterium”, which he observed in microscopic samples from nearly every infectious and non-infectious disease, was the cause of everything. While modern scientists were searching for the agent of influenza and other diseases and trying to fulfill Koch’s postulates (not a requirement, but handy) Roy was bringing to life one of the most enduring errors in modern medicine. Unlike the discovery of H. flu, the “discovery” of Oscillococcinum (which I’m hesitant to dignify with italics) led not to the control of important diseases but to the world’s most popular quack remedy for influenza.
Roy and others ran with this “discovery”. It’s not clear exactly who decided to use Oscillococcinum to fabricate a homeopathic potion, but according to at least one source, Roy approached the French Homeopathic Laboratories in
1925 with a plan to produce his panacea from duck livers (and, of course, lots of water).
Three quarters of a century later, Oscillococcinum is still one of the world’s most popular flu remedies. This, despite the fact that it is based on an erroneous discovery of a non-existent bacterium which is “derived” from duck livers and diluted down infinitesimally. This is the ne plus ultra of quackery.
Jeffery K Taubenberger, Johan V Hultin, and David M Morenshttp. Discovery and characterization of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus in historical context. Antivir Ther. 2007; 12(4 Pt B): 581-591. PMCID: PMC2391305.
Nienhuys, Jan Willem,The True Story of Oscillococcinum. Homeowatch.org
Rouzé, Michel, Oscillococcinum : Le petit canard a grandi. Science, et pseudo-science, n° 221, mai-juin 1996.
Rouzé, Michel, OSCILLOCOCCINUM – Le joli grand canard, SPS n° 202, mars-avril 1993.
Jean-Marie Abgrall (2000). Algora Publishing. ed. Healing Or Stealing?: Medical Charlatans in the New Age. . ISBN 1892941511.
Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History, Viking Adult, 2004.