Story Collider: Diphtheria on the Oregon Trail


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If anyone has heard of dysentery, it's likely because they contracted it on the Oregon Trail. A variety of ailments struck players in MECC's classic edutainment title, and though dysentery was the most iconic, it was not the only killer: cholera, snake bites, measles, and typhoid fever were all rampant.

Many of these conditions are now easily avoid or immunized against using modern medicine, as detailed in the Mental Floss article "Where Are They Now? Diseases That Killed You in Oregon Trail". But our lack of familiarity with these conditions only leaves us more susceptible to their ravages, should they be unleashed upon an unsuspecting population.

That's exactly what happened to neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman, who, one night while working in her lab, accidentally injected herself with a syringe full of diphtheria toxin. Diphtheria is more than just a catchy word to use in headlines such as "Sally Has Diphtheria: Is Oregon Trail the Greatest Video Game of All Time?". It's an airborne bacterial disease that can cause nerve damage, organ failure, paralysis, or death. Fortunately, Dr. Brachman has not suffered those worst of fates — at least, not yet. She has thus far lived to share her story on the Story Collider podcast:

It's a horrific tale that demonstrates not just how bureaucracy has made inaccessible our most effective antitoxins, even for those who most urgently need them. It also underscores the even fewer chances that travelers along the historical Oregon Trail had. We've made a game of settlers who gambled against natural hazards with no immunizations, antidotes, or even hospitals to cure them — it's shocking that anyone survived the journey to Willamette Valley.