The Angel Glow of the Battle of Shiloh

Photorhabdus luminescens Transmission by Heterorhabditis bacteriophora Nematodes Photo Credit- Google Images
Photorhabdus luminescens Transmission by Heterorhabditis bacteriophora Nematodes Photo Credit- Google Images

In April of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was fought in Hardin County, Tennessee. The Confederate General Albert Johnson attempted to ambush the Federal forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant. The initial assault and the Federal counter attack was one of the bloodiest battles in America to date. There were 23,000 casualties littered over the Tennessee countryside.

Medical techniques at the time were rudimentary at best. Many soldiers died of infection and gangrene instead of their original wounds. If they survived the infection, the men faced possible battlefield amputations without anesthesia and no guaranteed success rate. The conditions of the battle made it nearly impossible to get the wounded off the field. The ground was soggy and swampy, and men had to wait for help in the cold, wet standing water and copious mud. They were left to fight infection and grievous injury on their own for days. It was only through a miracle that the casualties were not worse.

The men noticed as night fell, some of their wounds glowed with a faint blue light. No one knew what it was or what it meant. To the weakened men, they could have thought it was a hallucination, but it was there. It remained as they men were eventually evacuated to field hospitals. Amazingly, the medics noticed that the men who had glowing wounds did not have the typical infection that accompanied these kinds of battlefield injuries. They had a higher rate of healing and recovery than their fellow soldiers whose wounds did not glow. There was only a rudimentary understanding of germ theory at this time, so the men described it in the only way they could. They called the glowing blue light ‘the angel’s glow’, and thought that the wounds had been healed by the touch of angels.

This passed into folklore until a pair of young civil war buffs got curious. In 2001, 17 year old Bill Martin visited the Shiloh battlefield and got curious about the glowing wounds. With the help of his mom, who was Agricultural Research Scientist, he and his friend Jonathan Curtis began a high school science project called “Civil War Wounds that Glowed.” (This beats the hell out of my project about volcanos.) Anyway, what the boys found was the soil conditions at Shiloh after the battle were perfect for a tiny parasitic worm called nematodes. Nematodes feed on maggots and other insect larvae that are attracted to open wounds. Nematodes throw up a bacteria called P. luminescens, which kill the other microorganisms and allow the nematodes to feed uninterrupted. P. luminescens glow soft blue in the dark. The boys’ theory said that the P. luminescens in the wounds killed off the bacteria that caused infection and gangrene, allowing the wounds to heal. They also hypothesized that the cool April weather sent the men into hypothermia, which allowed the P. luminescens to survive in the wounds where it would usually be too warm.

So a combination of hypothermia and parasitic worms kept the men alive, and made up the miracle of the Angel’s Glow of Shiloh.


Francis Bacon

12109175_173989132943177_5326984050411747774_nBorn in January 1561, Bacon was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife Anne.

During his time at Cambridge, Bacon began to question the accepted methods of scientific research, believing them to be flawed. His ideas led to the modern approach to scientific research. It is suggested that it was his experimentation of the effects of freezing on decomposition and preservation that led to him catching a chill and developing pneumonia, leading to his death.
Bacon embarked on a career in Law and Politics, following his father’s sudden death which left him in financial difficulties. Despite the difficulties Bacon was served as a Member of Parliament from 1584 to 1617. In 1603 Bacon was knighted on James I ascension to the throne. As his career continued, Bacon reached the pinnacle of being made Lord Chancellor. In 1621, Bacon was given the title of Viscount St Albans.

His career ended in disgrace when later in 1621, Bacon was accused of corruption and taking bribes. There is a belief in some quarters that Bacon was a scapegoat, set up by his political enemies in order to deflect hostility towards the Duke of Buckingham. Following his confession and trial, Bacon was fined £40,000 and sentenced to the Tower. He only served 4 days and the fine was lifted, but Bacon’s reputation was in tatters.

Following his downfall, Bacon retired to St Albans where he spent the last years of his life following his scientific interests. The 9th April 1626 saw the passing of Francis Bacon.


First Human blood transfusion

12096486_172427313099359_5136689320696245028_nJean-Baptiste Denys was born in Paris around 1643, and after qualifying from Montpelier, worked as personal physician to Louis XIV of France.

Denys was following the work of early controversial human anatomists, notably Andreas Vesalius in the 16th Century, who contravened guidelines set by the Royal Colleges of Physicians banning human dissection. Vesalius not only performed autopsies, which flouted religious principles of medicine, but he performed them publically to ensure as many apprentices, practitioners and lay-people as possible could attend and learn.

His work, published as De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543, and dedicated to Holy Emperor Charles V, not only blew holes in the theories of Galen, which had formed the back-bone of anatomy and medicine for over 1400 years, but they propelled the study away from religion and myth into science. They also gave credibility to the practice of anatomy as a recognised branch of medicine, rather than a derogatory practice associated with surgeons, charlatans and butchers. This elevation obviously had a positive effect of the view, and the subsequent training of surgeons.
Vesalius’ most crucial discovery was that Galen’s theory on the blood circulatory system, was entirely incorrect. It had been stated that the arteries carried the rich blood upwards to the important organs, the brain and heart, and the veins downwards to the lesser organs. And that there were two ventricles to the heart interspersed with a series of holes to interconnect the two sides. Sadly he only went so far as to admit he couldn’t find these holes and did not investigate further, choosing instead to believe that the blood diffused through the transecting skin from one side to the other. Based on his work, later anatomists discovered valves that regulated the blood flow through veins one-directionally, without reflux.

In 1628, British Physician William Harvey, mapped and documented the entire human circulatory system and their properties for the first time, and used his findings to attempt the first human blood transfusions. Initial attempts proved fatal. In 1665, Richard Lower, also British, performed the first successful blood transfusion. Sadly it was canine in origin, rather than human, but after bleeding a dog almost to death, Lower successfully transfused blood from another dog, via a tied artery and both survived.

On June 15th 1667, Jean-Baptiste elaborated on this procedure by performing the first successful transfusion of blood from a sheep to a 15 year old boy, resulting in the survival of both specimens. He later repeated the process with an older man, again successfully. It would however be another 151 years before the first human to human transfusion took place, in 1818 when obstetrician James Blundell saved the life of a haemorrhaging female during childbirth with a transfusion from her husband. 83 years later, Austrian doctor Karl Landsteiner discovered the ABO typing of blood groups, and the principles of compatibility. Following the Great War, in the 1920’s, anticoagulation methods were introduced to prolong storage, and voluntary blood donation was introduced.
The process of determining the viability of blood transfusion from structure and theory to practice had taken around 300 years.


The Black Death

Contemporary depiction of a plague doctor
Contemporary depiction of a plague doctor

“Ring a ring a roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Attishu, attishu
We all fall down”

We are all familiar with the nursery rhyme of our childhoods, which is generally thought to be associated with the plague outbreaks of the 14th and 17th centuries, although this connection seems to date from as recently as the early part of the 20th century. Undoubtedly the rhyme has much older origins and there are variations around the world, which appear to mirror the culture of the locale. Whatever the history of the rhyme, it conjures up a picture of one of the most devastating events of medieval history.

The Great Plague is believed to have originated in the East, in particular China, and travelled west via the trade routes, although recent research suggests that it may have originated in the Steppes area of southern Russia. It arrived in Europe in 1347, although there are different accounts of the first recorded outbreaks. The general agreement is that the ships carrying silks, furs and the like were arriving in European ports harboured a population of rats as was the norm. During the journeys however, the rats in turn hosted a population of fleas which carried the disease. The usual cycle is that the fleas fed on the blood of the rats and as long as a population of rats remains available to the fleas, the fleas rarely feed on humans. The problem seems to have arisen when the population of rats aboard the ships all died from the infection, leaving the fleas in need of whatever food source was available to them. In this case, it was the humans.

One report tells of how a fleet of Genoese ships arrived in the port of Messina in Sicily. Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead and those still alive were near death. They were all covered in boils which oozed blood and pus. The ships were immediately turned away but the damage was done and the infected fleas turned their attention to the population of Messina.

Once a flea bites a host, the contagion travels to the lymph gland and buboes (hence the name Bubonic plague) develop, usually in the groin, thigh area, armpits and around the neck. These painful swellings turn black in colour and can ooze blood and pus. The progress of the disease was swift. The symptoms can be seen within 3 -5 days of being bitten and death occurs in the majority of victims within another 3-5 days. It is estimated that 80% of those that are infected die. If someone is able to survive the five days or so it takes for the buboes to burst they may stand a chance of survival as the bursting will aid the release of the poisons from the body. Boccaccio describes it:

“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg…From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves.”

The plague arrived at the shores of England in the early part of 1348, arriving in London in September of that year. The disease was indiscriminate, being no respecter of social station. The population had no idea of how the disease was spreading, and people moved around to try and remove themselves from the danger. The peasant population was devastated, with entire villages being wiped out. Anyone surviving, moving on to another populated area could unwittingly transfer the infected fleas to another part of the countryside. As the fleas cannot live without live hosts to feed from, the contamination would eventually die if there was nothing living left for them to feed from.

Modern victim of plague
Modern victim of plague

As we have seen the indiscriminate nature of the disease meant that even the ruling classes were not immune to it. In the first wave, we saw the death of Joan, daughter of Edward III in 1348. Joan was travelling to the court of King Alfonso of Castile, in preparation for her marriage to her betrothed, his son Peter. The ships carrying her and her escorts set sail from Portsmouth in the days before news of the outbreak had become widespread and it is unlikely that the king and his advisers were aware of the risks. The entourage stopped at Bordeaux, where they were exposed to the disease. The sickness spread through the entourage, with Joan herself succumbing and dying on 1st July.

Although this wave of the disease only lasted a couple of years, another wave hit in the 1360’s. Other notables that perished in this second wave included, Blanche of Lancaster in 1368, wife of John of Gaunt (For more on them, please see this post: ), and her father, Henry of Grosmont in 1361. It was the death of Henry that enabled John of Gaunt to inherit through his wife the Lancaster estates and titles, and so become the most powerful and richest magnate of the day.

The Plague continued to wreak havoc with the population of Europe over the coming years, as waves hit every few years into the early part of the 15th century, killing as many as 30%. Today it is a disease that can be easily treated with anti-biotics, but in the 14th century it was a very different case. Medicine was a very different beast. It was believed that all illness was a result of an imbalance of the humours. There was no understanding of what was happening in this case however, and it was blamed on everything from a punishment by God to the Jews. It was not until the 19th Century that medical advances began to make sense of what the cause was. Links were made to the fleas and how the disease was transmitted.

The devastation that occurred during the 14th century to the population was to have a dramatic effect on medieval society. It sounded the death knell to the serfdom that had been the backbone of medieval society and the beginning of a more mobile, paid labour force. But that’s another story …


The Tunguska Event

1486235_origOn the morning of June 30, 1908, a fireball, that has been estimated to have been up to 30 million degrees Fahrenheit in the center, was seen roaring across the sky. At 7:17 A.M. in Russia, the flying object exploded above the Earth creating shock waves that registered 5.0 on the Richter scale and an air blast that was so strong that it sent waves across the globe, twice. It was reported that there was not one single explosion but a series of explosions that occurred which could be heard 745 miles away. Once the explosions were over, dust clouds rose up miles into the atmosphere. The sun reflected off of the clouds brightening the sky, so much so that there were reports in Asia that people could read outside at midnight with ease.

Russian mineralogist, Leonid Kulik, was the first to explore the site but he did not complete this task until 1927, 19 years after the fireball flew across the sky. While he did attempt earlier outings, the remoteness of the area affected his progress and the harsh weather in Siberia, prevented him from doing so. Upon arrival, in what today is Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River, the scene was destruction on a mass scale. A thorough inspection of the area revealed that over 800 square miles were completely destroyed with 80 million trees that had all fallen in a strange, circular pattern. Some of the trees were as thick as 3 feet in diameter but had snapped cleanly from the trunk. Even stranger was that the trunks and branches of the fallen trees were scorched but only on the surface, not typical for a forest fire. Kulik followed in the opposing direction of the fallen trees and found the epicenter of the disaster; the trees here were all still standing except that the branches and the bark had been stripped completely off and were also completely unharmed by the fire. This phenomenon of the trees in this manner would later be seen in Hiroshima, Japan.

After his investigation was complete, Kulik reported that there was no impact crater and no fragments of any kind within the area. The only thing Kulik did find were circular pits that he concluded were from fragments of a meteorite, even though he didn’t find any. This was later disproven as the circular pits are natural depressions that occur from permafrost melting and freezing, a common occurrence in Siberia. Then there was the question as to why no fragments could be found within the area or even surrounding the area, Kulik’s only explanation was that the swampy area located near the destruction had absorbed the meteorite over the period of 19 years.

In the years following Kulik’s investigation and reports, many have tried to come up with their own theories explaining what happened that day but none have been proven true. The latest theory was reported as recent as 2007. A group of Russian scientists in 1934 were the first to provide a new theory. Kulik had believed that the event was caused by a meteorite that entered Earth’s atmosphere which resulted in the fireball. The scientists here believed that it was not a meteorite but a comet instead. A comet is made of mostly ice, so their theory is that it would have vaporized immediately upon impact with the ground, creating no impact crater or fragments.

During the span on the 1940s and 1950s, during the popularization and craze of space and aliens in movies, people came up with all types of theories about a race of aliens that had come to wage a nuclear war with the people of Earth. The event was again rehashed in 1973 but by a physicist this time who proposed the idea that Earth had collided with a black hole causing a matter-antimatter explosion. This theory has been revisited several times since by multiple different physicists from around the world. Later proposed, by a German astrophysicist, was the idea that a magma-gas mixture erupted below the surface of the Earth that caused the destruction and would also create an explosion in the atmosphere. The latest of theories came in 2007 which proposed that a lake near the area, Lake Cheko, is the impact crater. The amount of permafrost in the region prevents lakes from being big or deep and Lake Cheko is unusually deep for that area. The other unusual piece of information regarding Lake Cheko is that no lake was ever recorded there prior to 1908, but it must be said that the area was undeveloped and poorly mapped because of the sheer remoteness.

Even NASA has their theories. They state that the object that was seen flying through the air was not a comet or a meteorite, but an asteroid. The proposed asteroid would have weighed roughly 220 million pounds, it would have been traveling around 33,500 miles per hour, and the air surrounding the rock would have been heated up to around 44,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At a distance of 28,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, the asteroid was no longer able to withstand the pressure or the heat causing an explosion and a giant fireball. The energy released at the time of the explosion would have been equal to 185 Hiroshima bombs. Since no impact crater is at the scene of the crime, they report that the majority of the asteroid consumed itself during the explosion. If the majority of asteroid would have consumed itself, where are the fragments that NASA claims to exist? A scientist at NASA stated that an asteroid of the same size and magnitude is estimated to hit the Earth every 300 years.

Just as much effort has been spent on debunking the same theories that have puzzled scientists for years. Many have stated that it could not have been a meteorite that caused this event to happen because in order for the fireball to have been seen in the direction it was moving across the sky, it would have had to be flying in the opposite direction of the sun, which meteorites do not. Meteorites move in the same direction as the sun, which also means that they typically hit at night when the Earth would be facing away from the sun. In order for the meteorite to hit in the morning, it would have had to be moving in contradiction to its typical pattern. A comet is more likely than a meteorite because their range of orbits is greater allowing them to make impact in the morning hours. There is also reasonable evidence that it could not be a magma-gas mixture, as proposed in 1973, because it would not have created a fireball that flew across the sky. The destruction and the explosion, yes. The fireball, no.

There has never been any evidence that any person perished in the event, but thousands of reindeer were killed and many carcasses were found burned. Whether it was aliens trying to start a nuclear war or a black hole that we accidentally bumped into, one thing is clear, the area in Russia was completely wiped clean and still stands today barren of trees with no explainable reason as to why.