Encircled by gold frames, the cuff links hold images that look a bit like watercolor paintings of splashing raindrops. They’re blue—one pale shade and another a little inkier—against a creamy background. In fact, they’re not watery at all. The shapes are bacilli—rod-shaped bacteria—and the image depicts strains thought to have caused the bubonic plague.
The cuff links were fashioned around 1900, and entered the collection of the Science Museum in London in the late 1980s. They drifted in as part of a larger bequest of medals and other objects with a link to medicine, writes Stewart Emmens, curator of community health, in an email. Decades later, the little curios evoke an era of rapid and profound change in the medical realm.
The Black Death, generally considered to have been the bubonic plague, devastated Europe during the Middle Ages. It wiped out millions of people—by some estimates, as much as half of the population. Many sufferers saw their skin pocked with buboes, swollen lymph nodes that looked something like blisters. Sometimes, dying tissues appeared black. Filthy air, nibbling vermin, and bad luck were cast as culprits of the outbreak; at that point, no one thought much about bacteria.
As the 19th century drew to a close, though, plague was back. This time, it was tearing through China and India. And this time around, scientists suspected that bacteria might be to blame.
The 19th century was a fascinating one for the fledgling fields of microbiology and bacteriology. In the early 1800s, most microscopes were luxuries peddled for fun and wonder, writes medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris in The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. English gentlemen snapped up velvet cases stocked with prepared slides, and peered at dainty flowers or thinly sliced fish scales. Any additional attachments—more sophisticated lenses, for instance—largely ended up gathering dust, Fitzharris writes. “Very few people who purchased a microscope during this period did so for serious scientific purposes,” she notes.
When researchers did turn their gaze toward the minuscule, they were met with cocked eyebrows. By the middle of the century, Louis Pasteur was busy with microbiology, which he poetically dubbed “the world of the infinitely small.” Still, the researcher was summarily criticized by his peers. Fitzharris quotes one skeptical slap from the scientific journal La Presse, which sniffed, “The world into which you wish to take us is really too fantastic.”
He did attract acolytes, though, including Alexandre Yersin. As the plague continued to claim lives, the French-Swiss doctor arrived in Hong Kong in June 1894, with a microscope in hand.
The streets were quiet and littered with the bodies of dead rats. When the local hospital didn’t open its doors to him, he improvised, setting up a laboratory on a porch. Yersin wanted to take samples from recently deceased corpses—and when the hospital didn’t agree, he cajoled the sailors carting the dead to burial grounds into giving him a few minutes to pry open the coffins and remove the buboes.
He prepared films and wiggled them under the microscope. “At the first glance I see a real mass of bacilli, all identical,” he wrote in his diary. “They are very small rods, thick with rounded ends and lightly coloured (Löffler blue).” Yersin eventually set up a laboratory closer to the hospital and was able to draw samples from living patients. Once Yersin documented similar bacilli in rats marked with buboes akin to the ones he’d seen on humans, he was confident that he’d found the microbe responsible for the plague.
Yersin and another researcher, Shibasaburo Kitasato, are thought to have identified the plague bacillus nearly simultaneously. (Today, the bacteria is known as Yersinia pestis, after Yersin.) The first vaccine to treat the disease emerged soon after.
“We have no information to link the cuff links to either men, but they date from a similar period and therefore may have been made to mark the discovery,” Emmens writes in an email.
Somewhere over the years, the objects’ backstory got lost in the shuffle. Emmens isn’t sure who wore them, or whether they were a commission or part of a larger fad for accessories that celebrated microbes. When the cuff links arrived at the museum, someone suggested that they may have been made by Fabergé, the Russian luxury jewelry outfit that manufactured jewel-encrusted Easter eggs and other glitzy decorations for European royalty, such as Tsar Alexander III. That hasn’t been confirmed. (Atlas Obscura has reached out to the jewelry house, and we’ll update if we learn more.)
Though the cuff links’ origin is unclear, this much is certain: Pasteur’s tiny world was real, wondrous, and life-saving.
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