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A Brief History of Staph

Charting the progression of today’s hospital terror.

By Wendy Orent // Winter 2006
Joseph Lister



THE ENGLISH SURGEON JOSEPH LISTER, influenced by Louis Pasteur’s work on infectious agents, uses carbolic acid directly on wounds and surgical dressings, preventing most post-operative infections.


Eye of Science/Photo Researchers, Inc.


STAPHYLOCOCCUS IS IDENTIFIED AS A CAUSE of wound infection by the Scottish surgeon Sir Alexander Ogston, who named it for the grape-like clusters (in Greek, staphyle) he observed under the microscope.

Staphylococcus aureus

John Durham/Photo Researchers, Inc.


STAPHYLOCOCCUS AUREUS IS ISOLATED BY German scientist Anton Rosenbach, who grows the two strains, S. aureus (“golden staph,” for the golden colonies it grows on bacterial media) and S. albus (white colonies), in pure culture.

Coagulase test

Image Source/Age Photo Stock


A “COAGULASE” TEST ENABLES SCIENTISTS TO detect a plasma-coagulating enzyme secreted by S. aureus, still the most common cause of wound infections in hospitals. Coagulase-positive staph is the most virulent strain.

S. aureus bacteremia mortality rate

Chip Simons/Getty Images


THE MORTALITY RATE OF S. AUREUS bacteremia is reported as 81% in a Boston hospital. The same year, a British policeman seriously ill with S. aureus is cured by penicillin.


Laguna Design/Photo Researchers, Inc.


WIDESPREAD USE OF BENZYLPENICILLIN cures many staph infections. But having a “cure” leads to lapses in antiseptic and aseptic protocols. By the late 1940s, penicillin-resistant staph outbreaks begin to occur.

Nicholas Eveleigh/Getty Images


WHEN PENICILLIN PROVES NO LONGER able to control staph infections, a new drug, methicillin, is developed. Introduced in Europe, it has a short-lived usefulness as the bacterium evolves to resist it.


Dr. Gary Gaugler/Photo Researchers, Inc.


METHICILLIN-RESISTANT S. AUREUS, NOW known as MRSA, is detected in a British hospital; during the next 10 years, multidrug-resistant staph becomes widespread in Europe, Australia and the United States.


A. Huber/U. Starke/Corbis


DENMARK, THE NETHERLANDS, AND OTHER European countries establish stringent infection-control regulations; MRSA rates begin to drop there while holding steady or climbing in the United States and Britain.


A Killer Called Staph

Germs, staph infections, MRSA

If God wanted to send a plague to expose the Achilles’ heel of American medicine, that plague would be MRSA.

MRSA by the Numbers

Some countries have the problem well in hand; others don’t.

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