10 Ways That Doctors Treated Infections Before Antibiotics

Georgian doctors Nina Chanishvili (L) and Ketino Porchidze work in the laboratory of the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology in 2005. Bacteriophage therapy was very popular in Russia and Eastern Europe. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Living in the old Soviet Union had a lot of downsides, but a potentially fatal one was the lack of access to the antibiotics that Western pharmaceutical companies were developing. In order to compensate for that problem, the Soviet Union focused instead upon developing the use of bacteriophages —that is, viruses that kill bacteria [source: Reardon].

The idea of using viruses as bacteria killers actually was first suggested by a British bacteriologist, Ernest Hankin, who theorized in 1896 that some sort of a microbe in the waters of the Ganges and Jumna rivers in India was limiting the spread of cholera. A Canadian microbiologist, Felix d'Herelle, demonstrated in 1915 that a virus was capable of taking over a bacterium and living off it like a parasite. French and U.S. efforts to develop drugs based on the discovery, however, lost steam once antibiotics became big. But in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, the treatments became an alternative to those unavailable antibiotics [source: Sukakvelidze, et al.].

Recently, U.S. scientists began looking anew at bacteriophage therapy as a possible way to cope with rising antibiotic resistance. Unlike antibiotics, which kill all bacteria in their path (both good and bad), phages kill just one strain of bacteria. If the bacterium becomes resistant to that phage, another one is added to the viral mix a patient might receive [source: Reardon].