It’s cold and flu season once again, and according to the Center for Disease Control this is a particularly bad season for the flu. When boomers got a bad cold or the flu, our parents took us to the family doctor who, after a cursory exam, would administer a penicillin injection. The next day, or certainly within two days, we’d be right as rain and back in school. Around the 1970s and into the ’80s, the use of penicillin — given both orally as a pill or as an injection — started to wane. Penicillin use is far from the norm today.
The Mayo Clinic says penicillin was never the right course of treatment for colds and the flu. The reason is the drug is useful for bacterial infections, but is not effective for viral infections like colds and the flu. This would have been known from the start, so family doctors in the 1950s and ’60s would have had this knowledge. Then the whole antibiotic-resistance evolution enters the picture. Today’s bugs are much more resistant to the antibiotics that were regularly distributed during our boomer years. But what goes on here? Every boomer Mister Boomer knows recalls getting better very quickly when given a penicillin shot in their school years, though most of us hated the experience. Surely it can’t be a placebo effect for an entire generation, can it?
Penicillin was first discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. The use of the drug was vital during World War II to fight infections in the wounded, but mass production proved a daunting task. The great need during the War spurred development and its use in the military became widespread — for a narrow range of bacterial infections — around 1942. After WWII, Australia became the first country to make penicillin available to the general public. The U.S. followed suit in 1945. The drug also was used to treat syphilis and gonorrhea and is credited with widely reducing the spread of STDs in the post-war 1950s.
Yet for boomers, it was a shot in the arm, from a doctor who was usually an older man, who asked your parents if the child before him was allergic to penicillin. Since an injection could cause slight pain and discomfort for a couple of days, Mister Boomer usually offered up his left arm for the intra-muscular injection. Inevitably, that evening, Brother Boomer would find an excuse to somehow bump or hit the “shot arm.” Cries of “Mom, he hit my shot arm,” could be heard from Mister Boomer or his sister. After a drag on her cigarette, his mother would tell the older brother to leave his brother or sister’s “shot arm” alone. Often the next day, it was back to school. Did penicillin do its job?
Mister Boomer has a theory about the disconnect between the effectiveness of penicillin on colds and flu, and what we experienced as near-miracle recovery times with what was thought of as Modern Age treatments. His theory is two-fold; first, penicillin was effective on certain infections such as strep throat, so what was thought to be a cold or flu may have been a different type of bacterial infection altogether that the penicillin could attack. Second, it was an age of paternalism in the medical world. Doctors didn’t tell patients all that much since he — the doctor was almost always male — could be trusted to know more than his patients. There were very few Marcus Welbys out there. Some were downright condescending. Under this portion of Mister B’s theory, these egotistical medical professionals said they were administering penicillin because the general public had heard of and knew about the drug. Old man doc may have had any number of other drugs in his syringe.
Today we are in a world of bacteria that is increasingly resistant to the antibiotics that were common in our boomer years, so the development of new treatments is an ongoing process. In our boomer years, a shot in the arm was an unpleasant experience, but usually did the trick.
Do you remember getting penicillin shots for colds and flu, boomers?