This is just amazing.
Ninety-two years and a few months ago, a US Army private died at what is now called Fort Riley, Kansas. It was July 1918, and the 21-year-old recruit had been sick for two days with a fever and a headache, an aching chest and a hard, hacking cough that didn’t bring anything up. He was admitted to the base infirmary, where they found his temperature was a scorching 105.4 degrees and his entire right lung was not functioning properly. He was diagnosed with pneumonia.
It was 10 years before Alexander Fleming would find the mold that produced penicillin, the first antibiotic, on a contaminated culture plate in his laboratory, and 25 years before World War II service-members would benefit from the compound. The medical staff at Fort Riley had almost nothing to offer the private except a primitive immunotherapy: serum refined from the blood of earlier victims of streptococcal pneumonia. It did nothing for him. He died on July 20, nine days after being admitted.
Because he was a member of the armed forces, the base hospital followed a directive that dated back to U.S. Surgeon General William Hammond in 1862: They performed an autopsy on his body, and recorded and preserved the results. Their diagnosis had been right: His lung tissue was positive for S. pneumoniae. But the damage done to his body by the infection and his immune system’s response to it was dramatic: The middle and lower lobes of his right lung, and both kidneys and his spleen, were inflamed and necrotic and speckled with hemorrhages.
In accordance with Hammond’s Civil War order, the medical staff wrote up the autopsy findings and preserved snips of the soldier’s tissues in blocks of paraffin, and sent them all to a repository that Hammond had ordered created: the Army Medical Museum, later called the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, in the northwest corner of Washington, D.C. And there they sat, among many thousands of other records and samples, until a member of the institute’s staff delved into its archives 80 years after the soldier’s death.