Burn Some Sugar, Kill Some Germs

March 24, 2010 at 8:47 am 1 comment

Back before anti-bacterial soap and sanitizing hand gel and Lysol disinfecting cleaner, how was the average germophobe supposed to get rid of the darned germs? After all, you can’t see them, so it’s not like you can just pick them off your sweater like so much lint.

Anthrax Bacteria

Bacteria were first identified under the microscope in the late 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that scientists began to associate these little buggers with disease, But even as scientists were fleshing out the “germ theory of disease” in the 1880s and 1890s, ordinary folks had their own ideas about what made you sick. A big contender was bad air. So one way of trying to help the sick get better was to fix the air in the sick room.

In some parts of Europe, people believed that burning sugar might do the trick. For a long time, doctors just watched their patients with their burning sugars and chuckled and shook their heads. It wasn’t really scientific, and it obviously wasn’t going to help, but at least it wasn’t hurting.

Then in 1908, Professor Trilbert of the Pasteur Institute at Paris decided it was time to actually test the burning sugar idea. He discovered something interesting: burning sugar gave off a gas called formic acetylene-hydrogen, a gas claimed to have with powerful antiseptic properties.

Trilbert reported on his experiment: After he burned some sugar under a glass bell, he put open glass tubes of the  bacilli of typhus, tuberculosis, cholera, and smallpox in with the gas. Within half an hour all the microbes were dead, according to his reports. He even suggested a try-at-home experiment: if you put some burning sugar in a closed vessel with rotten meat, the rotten meat smell would disappear. So the sugar gas definitely was doing something.

Was all of this real? Hard to say. We need a house chemist here at Candy Professor. The best yours truly is able to discern, Trilbert’s “formic acetylene-hydrogen” is supposed to be some kind of derivative of formic acid. Formic acid is a powerful preservative and antibacterial agent used today in livestock feed. It gets its name from the ants, from whose bodies this chemical can be distilled. However, I cannot find “formic acetylene-hydrogen” anywhere in the digisphere, except with reference to Trilbert’s work. Did he discover this amazing sugar by-product? If he did, no one ever after was able to reproduce the results.

Real or (as we now suspect) entirely imaginary, Trilbert’s discovery was widely reported in American journals and magazines in 1909 and 1910. Good Housekeeping Magazine reported on Trilbert’s work in 1910.  Readers of that magazine expected to be informed of the very latest in domestic science, and now burning sugar was added to the arsenal of the scientific household. Good Housekeeping included a practical tip on how to create the burning sugar gas effect at home: just sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar over a pan of hot coals, and wave it around the room. Here was a new way for mother to keep the family well, or rather an old superstition dressed up with a fancy scientific imprimatur.

Too bad it didn’t work. Imagine, instead of the hospital smells of Vicks and Lysol, if your sickroom was filled with the lovely aroma of caramel. Maybe just the happy thoughts of candy would be enough to fight off the nasty colds

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    Sources: “Sugar as a Disinfectant,” Confectioners Journal, Dec.1908 p. 81; Good Housekeeping Magazine, March 1910, p. 413.

    Entry filed under: 1890 to WW I, Medicine, Science.

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