On October 19, 1901, Dr R.C. Harris, a St Louis physician, attended to a young girl named Bessie Baker who was suffering from advanced diphtheria. As was his routine, he injected diphtheria antitoxin into the child and, as a preventive, her 2 younger siblings and concluded that “she would soon be entirely well.” But 4 days later he was called back to the Bakers’ home to a terrifying discovery:

Bessie died of tetanus the following day, as did her 2 siblings within the week. So began one of the worst safety disasters in the history of American public health, in which, by the time it was over, some 13 children had died of tetanus from contaminated antisera.

Diphtheria was a scourge throughout the 19th century. It primarily affected children, and it killed through the release of an exotoxin that creates a pseudomembrane inside the throat of affected patients. When death...

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