Real heroes have gone unnoticed

By Glenda Price: CNJ columnist

This is a test. Have you heard of Elvis Presley? How about Oprah Winfrey? Or Johnny Carson? Yes, of course we all know about those people.

Here’s the rest of the test: Ever heard of Sir Alexander Fleming? How about Dr. Allan L. Drash.

No? We have Fleming to thank for penicillin and Drash was a pioneer in diabetes research and treatment.

You probably have heard of Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Christiaan Barnard, heart surgeon pioneers, but I bet you don’t know about William Thomas Green Morton, a Boston dentist. He pioneered the use of ether to help patients endure pain.

Could we possibly be honoring the wrong people? After all, historically, “entertainers” were the dregs of society. Is there any chance we could honor our real heroes, the ones who’ve made a difference for the benefit of all mankind?

Livestock producers and farmers have visionaries to thank as well. One of the most important was Edward Kipling, an American entomologist who, in the late 1930s, observed that the female screwworm fly only mates once, and even if the mating fails to produce offspring she will not mate again.

Screwworm flies are among the most disgusting life forms imaginable. In its adult stage the fly is about twice the size of a common housefly. It has orange eyes and a blue-gray or gray body with three dark stripes running down its back.

After mating (if it’s successful) the female lays her eggs in the open wounds of livestock and other mammals. One female can lay up to 400 eggs at a time and as many as 2,800 eggs during its 31-day lifespan. Those eggs can hatch into larvae in as little as 12 hours.

The larvae (worms) grow by feeding on the flesh of living animals, and can grow to over a half-inch long within five to seven days after hatching. The full-grown larvae then drop from the wound and tunnel into the soil where they form protective cases to house the pupae. Adult flies emerge and are ready to mate again within three to five days.

We older folks can well remember these disgusting parasites. Animals with screwworm infestations can die in seven to 14 days if not treated to kill the larvae.

Kipling, along with scientists Raymond Bushland and Herman Muller, discovered irradiated male flies were sterile, but sterile males could still compete successfully with normal males for mates.

In the early 1950s the USDA Agricultural Research Service got in the act, and sterile male flies were raised in a production plant and then released by aircraft over infested areas. By 1959, the screwworm had been eradicated from the entire southeastern United States, and the whole country by 1966.

I heard no songs dedicated to these scientists; they have not been lionized by the popular press. Most important, I’ve heard no acknowledgment that scientists and government — working together — can solve even the worst problems biology and nature can cause, especially if no one demands to be interviewed on celebrity television or the “popular” press.