The Barnes Foundation: a monument to prevention of gonorrhea?

Much of Albert Barnes' wealth, which led to his renowned art collection, came from the development of a successful gonorrhea prevention intervention. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff photographer)

By Jonathan Purtle

This weekend, for 56 consecutive hours, the Barnes Foundation will open its doors to the public at its new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  While the merits of the foundation’s controversial move from Merion to Philadelphia may be on the minds of some museum-goers as they meander through the incomparable works of art, they may be surprised to learn that they are looking at the rewards of a successful gonorrhea prevention intervention developed in West Philadelphia.    

As Howard Greenfeld describes in The Devil and Dr. Barnes, Albert Coombs Barnes was a Philly lad—born and raised. Born in the Kensington section in 1872, Barnes attended Central High School and went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a medical degree at the age of 20. 

But he never practiced medicine, opting instead to pursue a career in chemistry.  In 1896, Barnes left Philadelphia for Berlin, which was an intellectual mecca for chemistry at the time.  While there, he befriended a young and talented German chemist named Hermann Hille. Seeing a business opportunity, Barnes recruited Hille back to Philadelphia and by 1902 the business of “Barnes and Hille, Chemists” was operating out of a dilapidated building at 24 N. 40th St. in the Powelton section of the city.

There, the two of them developed Argyrol — a silver compound, eye-drop solution that was administered to newborns to prevent the transmission of gonorrhea bacteria from mother to infants during birth.  Gonorrhea bacteria can cause neonatal conjunctivitis and blindness in infants. 

Argyrol sales neared $100,000 in 1904 and exceeded $250,000 in 1907 — equivalent to $6 million in 2012 dollars. By 1910, some states had mandated that the solution be administered to newborns at birth;  some still have similar laws today. Over the course of a decade, Barnes and Hillle developed a simple, low-risk, low-cost preventive strategy that yielded great benefits for both the public’s health and their own wallets. 

Argyrol is rarely used today (erythromycin is now administered to most newborns), but risks of sexually transmitted diseases to newborns are just as real as they were at the turn of the 20th century.

Some STDs, such as syphilis, cross the placenta and infect babies while they are still in the uterus. Others — such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and genital herpes — are transmitted when babies make the journey through the birth canal.  HIV can be transmitted both ways, as well as through breast milk.

If unidentified and untreated, STDs can have serious consequences for newborns, including low-birth weight, conjunctivitis, blindness, deafness, neurological disorders, still births and other serious complications.  Luckily, these can be easily prevented through STD screenings, common medications, and safe sex.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all women be tested for STDs during their first prenatal visit.  Most STDs can be treated and cured with antibiotics and antiviral medications — substantially reducing, if not nearly eliminating, the risks to infants. 

Using condoms the right way, every time, and having a monogamous sexual partnership with someone who doesn’t have an STD (and has been recently tested to be sure) are strategies to help protect unborn infants from the diseases.  This is especially important, since the risks of STD complications are even greater to women and babies if the STD is acquired while the woman is pregnant.  Since getting pregnant while already pregnant is incredibly rare, some couples may stop using condoms when the woman becomes pregnant — putting the fetus and the woman at risk.

So, next time you visit the Barnes, and are moved by the beauty of the Picassos, Matisses, and Renoirs, remember that this is what you can get when you work to protect the public’s health.

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