Joe Schwarcz: Great scientific advance started with deodorizing ‘gut factories’

JavelTo put it bluntly, Louis XVIII stank. It wasn’t from improper hygiene, although French kings weren’t particularly noted for their love of baths. The culprit was the gangrene oozing from his legs. When poor Louis finally passed away, the odour was so foul that something had to be done before the body could be properly prepared for burial.

So, who you gonna call? Antoine Germain Labarraque, that’s who. The man who had solved the problem of stench in the “boyauderies,” the factories where animal guts were turned into strings for musical instruments, sutures and “goldbeater’s skin.” Labarraque knew just what to do. He covered Louis’ body with sheets soaked in a sodium hypochlorite solution (bleach) and made the undertaker’s job bearable.

The processing of animal guts into string is older than recorded history. The Ebers Papyrus compiled around 3750 B.C. describes Egyptian surgeons using dried intestine for suturing wounds. And the gold leaf that adorns ancient sarcophagi was made with “goldbeater’s skin,” the incredibly thin but strong outer membrane of calf intestine. Gold is the most malleable of all metals, meaning that it can be beaten into extremely thin sheets. Egyptian craftsmen managed to produce gold leaf that was an almost unimaginable 0.000125 millimetres thick! To achieve this, layers of gold sheets were piled on top of each other and then laboriously beaten. Separating the layers with “goldbeater’s skin” was critical to prevent the leaves from fusing together. But preparing the skin was not easy. It involved separating the outer membrane of the intestine and treating it with a mild alkaline solution to allow residual fat to be scraped off. The Egyptians probably used potash (potassium hydroxide), made by adding calcium oxide (lime) to potassium carbonate. Calcium oxide forms when calcium carbonate (limestone) is heated, while potassium carbonate is found in wood ashes.

The exact methods of producing gold leaf and goldbeater’s skin were kept secret by goldsmiths who usually passed the skills down through their families. But the stench associated with processing animal intestines could not be kept a secret. That’s why, around 1820, a French association dedicated to encouraging industrial development offered a prize of 1,500 francs for a method that would reduce the disturbing odours that plagued the industry.

Labarraque had trained as a pharmacist and was familiar with “eau de Javel,” a solution of sodium hypochlorite first formulated by the French chemist Claude Berthollet in 1789. He knew that, in addition to bleaching fabrics, the solution also imparted a fresh odour.

Stimulated by the offer of a prize, Labarraque investigated using Javel in the processing of intestines and discovered that not only did it reduce the smell, the hypochlorite also facilitated the separation of the intestine’s components. He won the prize and went on to study the use of various hypochlorite solutions to deodorize toilets, abattoirs, anatomical theatres, morgues, stables and hospitals.

Since disease at the time was thought to be spread by noxious fumes of bad air, or “miasmas,” Labarraque began to recommend that smelly wounds be rinsed with Javel and that the solution be used to clean places where people had been afflicted with cholera. He also suggested that doctors breathe Javel’s vapours and wash their hands with a hypochlorite solution.

This was long before John Snow in England connected cholera to drinking polluted water, and way before Ignaz Semmelweis made the link between a lack of handwashing and childbed fever. It wasn’t until 1847 that Semmelweis theorized that doctors who attended to patients after coming straight from dissection rooms were causing disease by transferring smelly “cadaveric particles.”

Semmelweis knew that Labarraque’s solutions reduced the smell of decay and advocated their use for handwashing, finding hypochlorite worked better than soap. Since it was he who actually documented that childbed fever risk was reduced by handwashing, Semmelweis gets credit for the discovery, even though Labarraque had advocated handwashing with Javel some 20 years earlier. Of course, neither Labarraque nor Semmelweis knew about bacteria; the germ theory of disease would not be cemented by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch for another couple of decades. And it wasn’t until 1894 that German chemist Moritz Traube demonstrated that chlorine solutions killed bacteria, precipitating the first addition of chlorine to a municipal water system in Middelkerke, Belgium. Chlorination of drinking water turned into one of the greatest scientific advances in history. And to think that it all can be traced back to a need to deodorize “gut factories.”

Those gut factories also played a large part in the development of the impressive airships that launched the age of air travel in the first half of the 20th century. These cigar-shaped masterpieces of engineering, named after their German pioneer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, featured a canvas-covered aluminum framework hull that housed up to 20 giant bags filled with hydrogen. Obviously, these bags had to be extremely light, strong and leak-proof. Goldbeater’s skin fit the bill perfectly. One of the amazing properties of the skin is that, when wet, separate sheets can be welded together by overlapping and gentle rubbing to form a seamless, leak-proof joint. The zeppelins were gigantic, requiring incredible amounts of goldbeater’s skin to hold them aloft. More than one million cows contributed their intestines to the most famous dirigible of them all, the Hindenburg.

Sixty-two people survived the horrific crash of this airship in 1937 as it was about to land in Lakehurst, N.J. Many undoubtedly had their wounds sutured with catgut, which has nothing to do with cats. The term probably originates from “kit,” an old name for a fiddle, the strings of which, like suture thread, were made from animal gut, usually that of sheep. “Catgut” sutures, being composed of biological material, eventually decompose, eliminating the need for removal, a property discovered by Joseph Lister, who is mainly remembered for his introduction of phenol to reduce infections during surgery. He also pioneered the idea of washing catgut in a phenol solution after noting that raw catgut introduced infections into wounds.

Now, should you ever be asked to find a link between King Tut’s golden sarcophagus, the Hindenburg, dissolving sutures and King Louis XVIII’s body odour, you’ll be prepared to give a gutsy answer.

Joe Schwarcz

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