A FUEL AND A MEDICINE

July 18, 2017

In The Deadliest Sport, Miriam tells us she cuts up the cakes of animal dung drying in the courtyard to fuel her distillation apparatus. As an alchemist, she is, after all, intent on purifying her elixir to rejuvenate and extend human life. But if she’d collected the dung of camels instead of horses, she wouldn’t have had to dry it at all. Fresh from the animal, it’s already so dry that it burns evenly, slowly, and almost smokelessly.

   

But that’s not all! When consumed while still warm and fresh, it has a dramatic healing effect on humans suffering from intestinal illnesses such as dysentery. The curative agent, the bacteria Bacillus subtilis, was identified by the Nazi German medical corps in 1941 after hundreds of their soldiers in North Africa were dying from dysentery. Why weren’t the millions of Arabs living there dying of that same disease?

   

At the first sign of the disease, diarrhea, the affected Arab would follow a camel, pick up its warm droppings, and swallow them. The symptoms were eliminated almost overnight. (Remember this was before the era of synthetic antibiotics.) And so, the Nazis examined the dung, identified the bacteria, and produced thousands of gallons of the active culture to save their troops dying from dysentery.

   

Years later, the active culture in capsule form became the leading treatment for dysentery and other intestinal diseases. But by the late 1950s, Americans came to prefer the “wonder drugs” produced by the giant pharmaceutical companies, even though they took three times longer and cost five times more than the capsules of the active culture.

 

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