In the summer of 1853 a worldwide cholera pandemic arrived in Denmark, and from June to October more than 4,700 of Copenhagen’s population of around 130,000 died.
Five years ago, Peter Kjær Mackie Jensen, an associate professor from the Copenhagen Center for Disaster Research at the University of Copenhagen, became aware of a small sealed bottle at the Copenhagen Medical Museum.
The bottle contains a sample of excrement from one of the last people who died in Copenhagen during the epidemic.
Polishing the turd
It may be that there is no trace of cholera in the sample, but if there is, it could provide valuable insights into the disease, so a discussion is currently raging as to whether the bottle should be opened and the contents analysed.
“The sample can tell us a lot about which type of cholera we had then. It can also help us to understand the cholera that currently rages in countries such as Haiti, Bangladesh and Yemen,” Jensen told DR’s P1.
Karin Tybjerg, an associate professor at the Medical Museum, disagrees. She argues that from a historical perspective, it would be better if the bottle and its contents remained intact.
“The bottle is unique and not so easy to open because the glass stopper is sealed. We don’t know of any museum or collection anywhere in the world that has anything like this,” she said.
The turd way?
Despite her misgivings, Tybjerg is a member of the research team that has sought funds to open and examine the contents of the bottle during 2019.
“We also need to think of future generations. Have we reached a sufficiently high level of natural science research that is good enough to open the bottle? Coming generations may have more scientific techniques at their disposal,” said Tybjerg.
When the money is in place a number of tests and analyses can be set in motion.
“I can reveal that we have 18 processes alone that are concerned with opening the bottle. There are 14 laboratories involved,” said Jensen.
No shit, Sherlock!
As well as testing for DNA and proteins, the researchers will be able to see whether the cholera bacteria is still alive and whether it can be reproduced to crate a microbiota from 1853 – a time before antibiotics and pesticides.
The air in the bottle will also be tested, as well as which isotopes are in the fluid and which toxins are present.
“The preparations have been incredibly thorough. You really have to consider everything. If I’ve opened the bottle, then I have to be absolutely sure there are no other tests that we could have carried out, as we only have the one sample of these unique contents,” said Jensen.