Backroads

McCloskey Army Hospital in Temple was among only a few military hospitals in the country to use the newly developed antibiotic penicillin during World War II. It was stored in glass vials and administered either intravenously or by hypodermic injection.

Aside from the barbecues and picnics, today is Memorial Day, when civic and patriotic organizations gather to honor those who served in times of armed conflicts and in peacekeeping — especially those who died in service.

Speeches, music and cemetery ceremonies will happen throughout the county. Among the solemn remembrances will be those who died in battles of the past 150 years.

Bullets and bombs account for a portion of deaths. Diseases and infections were considered “the enemy within,” often ravaging military units before they could storm the battlefields. The deadly comrades of war and disease accounted for a major proportion of human suffering and death.

During World War II, glass vials held one of the most potent “weapons of war.” Soldiers called it “a miracle.” Physicians called it “penicillin.”

For thousands of wounded soldiers, it was a lifesaver and the Allies’ “other secret weapon.” By the war’s end, thousands of soldiers were able to return home, thanks to this nondescript mold spore.

During World War II, Temple’s McCloskey Army General Hospital, activated in June 1942, was one of a handful of sites in the country testing penicillin. Because of its size and massive numbers of patients with catastrophic injuries, McCloskey was among a handful of military hospitals to test the new medication. The military hospital received its first shipment in July 1943. In six months, U.S. production swelled from 50,000 vials to 1.5 million by December 1943.

Addressing a Temple medical audience after the war, Maj. Gen. Norman T. Kirk (1888-1960), Surgeon General of the Army during World War II, said that less than 3 ½ percent of the 560,000 American soldiers wounded during the recent war had died of their wounds, compared with a death rate of 8 percent for World War I. About two-thirds of soldiers were able to return to active duty, he added. Kirk and his wartime administration are credited with industrial production of penicillin that eventually benefited peacetime use and civilians.

Another advantage: Kirk was able to develop treatment and rehabilitation protocols for amputees, thanks to penicillin’s ability to reduce infections. Thus, wounded soldiers were able to retain more of their shattered limbs, could recover with fewer complications, be fitted with prostheses more quickly and begin rehabilitation earlier.

Now under the Veterans’ Administration umbrella, McCloskey eventually evolved into the Olin E. Teague Veterans' Medical Center, part of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System. With 1,200 beds and hundreds of medical personnel co-opted for the war effort, McCloskey was one of the army’s largest general hospitals, noted as a center for orthopedic cases, amputations and neurosurgery for all service branches.

The development of penicillin during World War II also heralded a revolutionary way to treat infections — among them streptococci, staphylococci, gonococci, syphilis and the bacilli of gas gangrene.

“With the exception of the atomic bomb project, the penicillin program had the highest priority of any military item during the war,” reported the Department of the Army’s official history of its medical services. Early reports on penicillin were classified, for fear that the Axis powers would develop it. By the close of the war in 1945, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey found that German scientists were surprised that the Allies had been able to keep from the scientific literature several details essential for production.

Many called diseases and infection as “the third army,” considered more deadly than bullets. During the Civil War, two-thirds of the estimated 660,000 deaths of soldiers were caused by pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery and malaria, which extended the war by two years. About two-thirds of military deaths in World War I were in battle; diseases and infections killed the remainder. Civilian deaths totaled about 6 million due to war-related famine and diseases.

Up until the late 1920s, penicillin was a little-understood substance. Ancient Greeks and Romans knew that a curious fungus was beneficial with infections. Later, researchers in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries tried to use penicillin mold spores to treat animal and human diseases. Their efforts failed. By the mid-1930s, sulfa drugs, made from chemical compounds, were used with limited success.

The “miracle drug” was a challenge for bioscientists because penicillin was difficult to mass-produce. By late November 1941, scientists successfully devised a foolproof system for manufacturing large amounts. The next month, the U.S. entered World War II.

McCloskey’s trials of the drug attracted national press coverage, even though mass-production details were top secret.

By March 1944, McCloskey personnel allowed Temple Daily Telegram editor Walter Humphrey (1904-1971) to see the results first-hand. He effusively described 10 different patients — all with serious infections — who had bounced back in a matter of days.

A McCloskey orthopedist, Maj. George F. Wollgast, M.D., (1905-2004) described the first use of penicillin at McCloskey. Six seriously wounded soldiers with blood infections arrived with only a 15 percent chance of survival, he told Humphrey. Each patient received hypodermic injections every three hours. They survived. Within a couple of weeks, Wollgast’s team treated more than 100 cases of gonorrhea and 125 other cases of severe infections ranging from meningitis to bone infections to pneumonia.

Penicillin development and availability advanced rapidly. By May 1944, Scott & White and King’s Daughters hospitals were among only 1,000 hospitals nationwide granted permission to administer penicillin to civilians. Temple’s African-American physicians were also given access to penicillin.

When Humphrey wrote the Telegram article, penicillin had limited availability to civilians. Nevertheless Wollgast was doubtful whether penicillin could effectively be used by civilians because pills were difficult to produce. The only applications were through hypodermics and intravenously infusions.

“You probably never will be able to buy penicillin at the drugstores and use it yourself,” he predicted. “It probably will remain a drug that can be administered only by a doctor or the nurse.”