Weird History, Part 3: Clostridium Botulinum

In 1820, the medical officer and poet Justinus Kerner reported his clinical observations of “sausage poisoning.” He noted that the toxin behind this disease interrupts the body’s motor systems, but does not affect sensory or mental functions.

Almost 200 years later, Real Housewives pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to have needles full of this sausage poisoning shoved into their faces.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about the popular, and widely mocked, Botox.

When Kerner first described the disease that became known as botulism, he did not know exactly which bacterium was responsible. He did, however, notice that it could be lethal in tiny doses, but still suggested that it might, one day, be used to treat abnormal muscle movements.

In the late 1800s, once germ theory was the prevailing idea when it came to the spread of disease (that’s right, folks–germ theory has only been universally accepted by medical science for about 120 years), Émile van Ermengem identified Clostridium botulinum as the cause of sausage poisoning after he grew the bacterium from a sample of the meat. The sample was from a serving of ham that had poisoned 34 funeral attendees. The event was known as the “Green Funeral” and inspired a scene in Game of Thrones.[citation needed]

(Oops, referenced the wrong show … Sorry, Sherlock.)

By World War I, the canning industry was booming–and so was botulism. Advancing technology made food more abundant and better preserved, but poor canning methods negatively impacted their quality and safety. In the 1920s, Friedrich Meyer helped found a research institute to study safer canning technologies. Researchers figured out that heat inactivates the botulinum toxin, and this knowledge helped them establish better canning methods. So when you hear people insist that we stop eating modern convenience foods and eat the way our great-grandparents ate, remember that our great-grandparents were eating out of cans packed with botulism.

“Just like mother used to make.”

Botulinum toxin was studied as a potential bioweapon, starting in World War II. This created a beautiful irony–trying to kill Germans with their own sausage poisoning. This also means that people who use Botox are essentially committing bioterrorism against their own faces.

In later decades, ophthalmologists sought solutions for numerous eye-muscle disorders. Scientists experimented on chick embryos and monkeys, finding that purified botulism was an excellent candidate for fixing twitches (also known as “crazy eyes”). By the 1980s, the toxin was being used to treat a variety of muscle disorders, and was also useful for certain sweating disorders.

When botulinum was first used cosmetically, a California plastic surgeon (of course) used it to correct a patient’s facial asymmetry caused by nerve paralysis. Doctors and scientists began to connect the dots, and saw that the toxin reduced “frown lines” that form between the eyebrows. (Thus, Botox reduces the IQ, since it renders the user incapable of frowning in thought.)

Under the brand names Botox, Dysport, Xeomin, and Myobloc, botulism is now a runaway moneymaker, and the most common cosmetic procedure in the United States.

ETA: My friend Jessie and I were just discussing this post, and she remarked that it reminded her of a quote from Acts of King Arthur by John Steinbeck. It’s amazing and I had to share it here:

A face, a body grows and suffers with its possessor. It has the scars and ravages of pain and defeat, but also it has the shining of courage and love. And to me, at least, beauty is a continuation of all of those.

Which goes back to what Tyra and I were saying: You are flawsome. At any age. Wrinkles and all.