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A Virus Survives Oblivion

Science said it wasn't possible —But after thirty-five years ofneglect a deadly virus still kills rats.

Take an inch. Now imagine l/l,000,000ths of that inch. You would have the approximate diameter of a virus, an organism visible to the human eye only with the aid of an extremely powerful electron microscope. Now take a drop of liquid. Imagine this time l/10,000,000,000ths of that drop. This nearly inconceivable quantity of the Novy Rat Virus will kill rats within a few hours after inoculation.

Until last month such potency was not generally known. The mention of anything as ominous as "Rat Virus" might easily have set off a chain of speculations as unfortunate as the recent propaganda about germ-warfare. However, a few weeks ago "Rat Virus" buzzed through the press wires across the Nation, because from the University came one of the most startling science stories of the year.  For, in true believe-it-or-not fashion someone had accidentally stumbled on a batch of deadly rat virus which had been misplaced over thirty years ago!

As is usually the case, rumors burst forth as shot from the inaccurate barrel of an antique musket. Precise, albeit inadequate, scientific information was transformed overnight into gossip. And people began picturing a civilization of monster-rats whose immunity to the strange virus would enable them to drive mankind out of existence.

The most effective means of flattening a rumor is to go back to the original source. In 1909 Dr. Frederick G. Novy, one of the first bacteriologists in the United States and clearly one of the University's outstanding scientists, isolated a virus which is now thought to be one of the most potent known to man. The isolation was made possible by passing the serum of sick or dead rats through a filter. Hence, the name, "filterable virus."

At the time of Dr. Novy's discovery there were only fourteen filterable viruses. Today there are at least 500.  But the rat virus appeared only to add to an even more powerful list of superstitions rather than to the painfully small collection of scientific data.  People didn't believe in germs or viruses as causes of disease: "If you can't see it, it doesn't exist," was the attitude men like Novy had to combat. Then came the dawn of what Dr. Novy himself described as the "Heroic Age of Bacteriology." Dr. Walter J. Nungester, once Novy's pupil, now Chairman of the University's Department of Bacteriology, said, "All a man had to do was get up before breakfast to discover a new disease." For this was a time when scientists uncovered T.B., typhoid, syphilis, gonorrhea, and many others.

Not much was known about the rat virus, though. And even less heard outside scientific circles. Dr. Novy worked for years perpetuating the virus in rats, taking serum, inoculating, and re-inoculating. A "virus" is a small particle which is reproduced only within the cells of a susceptible host. This meant that Dr. Novy had to keep the virus alive in living rats, even though, ironically, the virus killed off its hosts almost as quickly as DDT kills off flies.

The deadly rat virus was only one of Dr. Novy's many projects to which he could divert that time which his teaching would allow. It was a slow process, this business of keeping the rat virus alive. Novy would take blood from an infected rat, inoculate another victim, and yet keep enough blood to seal in a tube. It was a process not without its ironies and disappointments.

In 1920 things came to an abrupt halt. The rats no longer died. It appeared that the blood which was set aside in tubes did not contain the original virus. So a basket of sealed tubes containing blood taken from infected rats between 1914 and 1918 was never tested. Obviously these, like the '20 batch, contained no living virus. Yet Dr. Novy urged everyone to continue the search for more rat virus.  He asked that all mysterious rat deaths be reported to him immediately so that he might again isolate the virus. So little was known; so much yet to be learned.

The basket of sealed tubes remained neglected for 35 years. They were never actually lost. They were merely a batch of dried up old rat blood that was part of the history of research. Meanwhile Dr. Novy's department moved to the new East Medical Building. Personnel changed. And Novy himself retired, taking with him to the background all consciousness of his virus. It looked as if another undeveloped scientific project was destined to slip from view. To counteract the alarm which might have been stimulated by the thought of a basket of deadly virus lurking somewhere was a well established theory that condemned the rat virus to death anyway. Viruses do not survive indefinitely when stored. At least their preservation was possible only under carefully observed and controlled temperature conditions. That is, until a few months ago.

A Basket Of Death

For the wire basket of Novy Rat Virus was recovered during a depart-mental housecleaning. The labels on the sealed tubes were yellow with age, and the writing obscure. Was it possible that these tubes contained the rat virus Dr. Nungester checked with Dr. Novy, and the virus proved to be authentic.

However, now that the virus had been found—that batch dramatically labeled "1914-1918"—could it by the farthest stretch of scientific imagination have survived It was a fantastic question, but Dr. Nungester recognized the significance in an affirmative answer. He turned the tubes over to Russell Jordan, a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D., fittingly enough as holder of the F. G. Novy Fellowship.

"Go ahead, Jordan. Find out what you can." And the student had a lethal rat virus unsuspectingly in his hands. "Going ahead" in a laboratory is not a simple matter. The tubes were carefully washed. They were then ground into a fine powder—glass, old blood, and all. Even bits of the yellow-labels became part of the strange mixture. Saline was added. Then filtering and straining; refiltering and restraining. The solution was injected in rats. They died.

Not only that. The virus began reproducing faster than the proverbial rabbit. And unlike the weakening process of inbreeding too many high-strung thorobreds, the strength of the rat virus remained unchanged. It was as deadly as ever.

Today the members of the bacteriology staff are back where Dr. Novy was years ago, but with the knowledge of nearly a generation at their disposal. "Virus'' is now an established scientific explanation. Now the electron micro-scope brings the incredible into actual view. Russell Jordan, in fact, has used the microscope to take the only existing picture of the rat killer, a photograph which he will use to document his Ph.D.

For all this, Dr. Nungester warns against hasty conclusions. "Newspapers are apt to speculate carelessly. We go slowly and plan cautiously." This means that the work has only just begun again, and that no one knows where it will lead, how it will end.

Asked if there were any plans to try the virus on human beings, Nungester replied calmly, "No." The effect on rats injected with sub-lethal doses is not completely known, and as long as there is the presence of reasonable doubt as to even the smallest amount of the virus, there will be no theatrical attempts with human life. Even the thought that the rediscovery of the virus will bring about a major revision in bacteriology is itself highly speculative.

Could the Novy Rat Virus be related to the mysterious Virus X, which has caused such great discomfort lately  Dr. Novy's younger colleagues doubt the possibility and simply state, "We don't know." Perhaps the Russell Jordan thesis will answer the question.  Dr. Nungester does indicate, however, how humans can help. "There is a daily incident of infections of unknown origin. We dare not inject the virus in the human blood stream yet, but we can compare the serums of unknown infections with the Novy Virus. It will take many such serums to make the comparisons and to check our results."

The Man Novy

What, meanwhile, of Dr. Novy, the retired scientist whose genius was responsible for this startling discover in bacteriology Dr. Novy is 88 years old and is presently a patient in the University Hospital. Even the most casual check on his glorious career reveals a panorama of data as dramatic as the recovery of his famous virus.

It is one thing to call a man "great," ''outstanding," "famous," and so on.  But it is another thing to look at his record and count the score.  Dr. Novy holds five degrees, but this never stopped him from walking down to Hertler's "Cracker Barrel" to exchange gossip around the stove and to buy corn for his squirrels and pigeons. Dr. Novy holds fifteen honors, has been granted fifteen honorary memberships in various organizations and professional groups, and has during his career been an active member of 34 societies, clubs, and associations.  Yet this never prevented his riding a bike up and down campus walks. Dr. Novy has written over twelve books and their revisions and over 150 papers and articles. Still he could turn to one of his pupils—who as a group have themselves contributed hundreds of papers and articles to the world of science—wipe his brow on a hot summer's day in the lab and say: "Ah, for a cool glass of Pilsner."

This is the great Dr. Novy known by so many as a man, destined to be known by so many more by the virus which he discovered and which bears his name. And known, too, by the Fellowship which perpetuates his honor.

The Michigan Alumnus

March 14, 1953, page 285

Frederick George Novy