Some of the more useful drugs are a product of “traditional medicine”. Colchicine for gout, digitalis, aspirin. The best current drug for falciparum malaria is the result of project 523, where the PLA (at the request of Ho Chi Minh) had people dig through old Chinese herbal manuals. Communism and Taoist magic – the royal road to drug development. Tu Youyou received the Nobel prize for this work in 2015; truly, there are other ways of knowing.

Which suggests that it might be worthwhile checking out other versions of traditional medicine. Sure, we should revisit classical medicine – reread Dioscorides,. Maybe we’ll all be swigging theriac in a few years.

A virgin medical tradition, one that hasn’t already been mined out, might be more promising. The Sassanid empire had its own intellectual tradition – much of which was lost in the Arab conquest. Not many of their works survive. We know, though, that they had their own medical tradition, centered at Gundeshapur, with a teaching hospital, library and an academy of learning. Gondeshapur gave refuge to Syriac Christians and Hellenistic philosophers. Indians and Chinese visitors translated Chinese and Indian texts on mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

It is possible that manuscripts of some of the lost works of Sassanid civilization still exist – in dry caves, for example, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Worth a look.

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66 Responses to Gundeshapur

  1. jason says:

    Medical progress seems to have slowed to a snail’s pace, so anything is worth a shot.

    Losing a critical mass of non-affirmative action types in medical research has done us in. The cost for making sure a lesbian woman of color was part of a team, may be seeing your loved ones hit the grave sooner than they should have.

    Please explain to your friends this is not a game. Remind them how drastically progress has fallen. And how it affects them and their family. I’d rather be alive and hated by the Left than a dead Virtue Signaler of PC Dogma.

    • James Richard says:

      Development of techniques for direct editing of DNA is proceeding quite a bit faster than a mere snail’s pace.

    • Difference maker says:

      A return to the age of plague

    • dearieme says:

      The peak of medicine was probably somewhere in the 60s 0r 70s, so the decline must have set in well before the rise of PC rubbish, I’d think. And anyway, the decline set in everywhere, not just in the US.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      A long slow decline in average genotypic IQ is a very serious concern as Cochran mentioned in an earlier post. But if you think it is bad here you should see the effect of the brain drain plus genotypic IQ decline in places like Iraq and Iran. If you want to read about something unbelievably crazy and stupid read about the immanent collapse of the Mosul Dam.

      Plenty of very bright people from these two countries, but the ones that could leave have left. The latest Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakhani left Iran and is now living in the United States. I am guessing the stagnation in medical advances is that all the lowest fruit have been picked rather than decline in intelligence of doctors. Mathematics hasn’t ground to a halt, at least that is what the PHD’s I know in that in profession tell me. When math stagnates, worry.

      Off subject but fascinating reading that New Yorker article on the Mosul Dam ready to break. If it breaks the death toll is estimated to be 500,000 to 1,500,000. Experts are saying replace dam, replace the dam, replace the dam. What do they do? Hire outside contractors (they can’t do it) to shoot grout into the streams becoming rivers that have opened up under the dam.

      • Sandgroper says:

        Dave, that’s a really interesting piece about the Mosul Dam. It would be normal practice to grout the foundation before building the dam wall – it’s not made clear in this case whether that was done, but it should have been, if those Swiss had known what they were doing (which is not at all clear at this point). But it would have been a massive job, going down several hundred feet all the way across. It’s also quite normal, particularly with older dams, to grout underneath them to prevent piping through the foundation, but again, in this case, they are really up against it. They have a crew of Italians on it, which is probably as good as they can do – the Italians know as much about this stuff as anyone.

        Ultimately, the truth is that they just built the dam in a really bad place, and some time, hopefully sooner rather than later, they are going to have the bite the bullet and de-commission it, or at least operate it at a much lower water level to reduce the water pressure under the dam to something manageable.

        • dave chamberlin says:

          I know you are an engineer and I appreciate your opinion. I think the Mosul Dam is a symbol of a much larger crumbling and collapse that will we be witnessing in decades to come in this part of the world.

    • Thiago Ribeiro says:

      So that’s where all those colored lesbians hide… In medical research. There’s why I have never seen one at a clinic.

  2. dearieme says:

    If a devout Moslem found such ancient knowledge, wouldn’t he be honour bound to destroy it?

    • marcel proust says:

      Given the well established role of the Islamic civilizations in the preservation and transmission of ancient Greek works, this is ambiguous. It probably depends on the time-varying (& place varying) meaning of what it means to be a devout Moslem. Are modern-day devout Shia in agreement with Salafis on this point? Further, my understanding is that there are many devout Moslems who are not fundamentalist, certainly not like the Sunni, much like, e.g., Abraham Heschel, a devout Reform and then Conservative Jew.

      • dearieme says:

        You remember the argument. If the knowledge is in the Koran then the other stuff is redundant, so destroy it. If the knowledge is not in the Koran, it’s false so destroy it.

        I gather than much of the preservation of Greek works took place in Persia while it was resentfully, and only imperfectly, Islamic.

  3. Sandgroper says:

    Taoist magic also works if you are being bothered by a ghost. Communism, not so much. In fact, it’s high time that someone paid a Taoist priest to get rid of Mao’s ghost once and for all.

  4. Toddy Cat says:

    Of course, as a good Communist, Ho should have despised everything traditional. Lucky for his troops, he was a hypocrite. Not so lucky for the 300,000 or so South Viets who died after his conquest of the South, though.

  5. DdR says:

    Wikipedia casts doubt that the Gundeshapur hospital ever existed.

  6. dave chamberlin says:

    Idle hands make the devil’s work and being semi retired I am getting into trouble with increasing frequency. I am working on a resume to send to investment firms as a diviner of the future. The boring Christians shut down the divination business but there are plenty of old books available that can help me as an aid in coming up with scientific divination. I think I need to inform said investment firms that we have a crack team of entrail readers at a huge slaughter house in Iowa. We only make stock picks after we achieve statistical significance in our predictions. It’s hard dirty monotonous work reading the entrails of hundreds of freshly slaughtered cows but someone has to do it.

    Our crack entrail reading team has a great track record not because we only short terribly run retail business that are bound to fail, Sears last year, Whole Foods this year, but because those fresh cow entrails never lie. Sometimes they contain bullshit, but they never lie.

  7. engleberg says:

    Silphium wasn’t just an good abortifacent- the Romans used it on everything, until they killed it all. We should post a bounty for anyone who can find a sample.

    • melendwyr says:

      Silphium was worth more than its weight in gold as it became rare. It’s pretty clear that the ancient Romans already sought out and harvested the last of it.
      Since many of its relatives have similar although weaker properties, it would be more practical to engage in attempts to breed them to silphium-level potency. But I doubt people looking for return on their money are going to invest in attempts to breed Queen Anne’s Lace.

      • engleberg says:

        ‘It’s pretty clear that the ancient Romans already sought out and harvested the last of it.’

        ‘Since many of its relatives have similar though weaker properties, it would be more practical to engage in attempts to breed them to silphium-like potency. But I doubt people looking for a return on their money are going to invest in attempts to breed Queen Anne’s Lace.’

        Never thought of that. Not sure it would fail. There’s probably a Queen Anne’s Lace gardening nut somewhere. And maybe an Ag lab already worked out every last chemical. I was thinking in terms of posting queries on classics websites- in hopes of ‘try Malahide castle’.

  8. Patrick L. Boyle says:

    My big toe hurts this morning. Time to take my Colchicine.

  9. MawBTS says:

    Where are we at with finding Genghis’s bones?

  10. Misdreavus says:

    The craziest thing is that bears’ bile actually works for certain hepatic conditions. (Ignore the part of the first article claiming it doesn’t work, which contradicts the other two sources.)

    The question is… Just who was the sicko who discovered this for the first time? And how? wtf!!

    • gcochran9 says:

      Bile bears. Today I have learned something.

      • Anonymous says:

        apparently the paws are a delicacy as well

        • Sandgroper says:

          Non-sequitur. You haven’t understood the subject.

          • Garr says:

            This is the second nastiest site on the internet, and the most interesting. The nastiest, and second most interesting, is SlateStarCodex. I imagine the nasty remarks at both sites as delivered in nasal tones, with a curled upper lip, disgustedly averted eyes, and the dismissive flapping of a flabby hand.

            • Sandgroper says:

              Not to belabour the point, but bear paws are not consumed for any perceived medicinal or health benefit. In traditional Chiinese medicine and Chinese cuisines, the distinction is certainly not always that clear-cut – lots of stuff is eaten (or avoided at certain times) in various Chinese cuisines because of perceived health benefits or medicinal purposes. Traditional Chinese medical practitioners, in addition to prescribing medicinal stuff to take, will ofter advise a patient on what he should or shouldn’t eat.

              I thought it better to avoid clouding or derailing the topic by making that clear.

              • Anonymous says:

                I never claimed bear paws had any medicinal or health benefit, just a fun fact. You’re right of course, it’s unrelated, but I think that was clear…

            • athEIst says:

              I never claimed bear paws had any medicinal or health benefit, just a fun fact.
              Not for the bear.

              • Sandgroper says:

                sigh The Chinese Government has banned the hunting of bears. There’s a difference between that and being able to stop it, obviously. Unfortunately, that had the adverse side effect that some people started bear bile farming instead. That is also illegal, but a lot easier to conceal from the law enforcement authorities than going out and hunting.

                China is the opposite of what a lot of people who have never been there think it is – it is not some giant police state; on the contrary, it is very seriously under-policed on a per capita basis compared to almost all other countries that supply figures, and a giant free-for-all. The ratio of police to population is far below the United Nations’ recommended level, which is 240 cops per 100,000 of population. As the Communist Party machinery that used to keep people in check has broken down and crumbled, there has been no commensurate ramping up of police to replace the role that the CCP cadres used to serve. So China has a very respectable set of laws, but it frequently fails very badly on enforcement – most often on non-violent ‘victimless’ crimes (unless you count the bears as victims, which I do). It still ranks reasonably respectably on violent and human on human crime figures – well below the USA.



                Back to topic.

            • whyteablog says:

              “This is the second nastiest site on the internet, and the most interesting. The nastiest, and second most interesting, is SlateStarCodex.”

              If that ain’t a full-throated endorsement, I don’t know what is.

          • whyteablog says:

            Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, are people not allowed to make casual conversation in your universe? You’re at a blog, not a nuclear peace treaty. Fuck.

            • Sandgroper says:

              I already gave an explanation for why I said what I did, but if you didn’t understand that, prefer obfuscation to elucidation, or just enjoy flinging profanity around, go for it.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “The question is… Just who was the sicko who discovered this for the first time? And how? wtf!!”

      I shared a squat with a load of druggies once including a drop-out chemistry student who spent his whole time experimenting with everything he could think of to get high.

      I expect shamans were like that – bright, bored out of their skull in their mud hut and experimenting with ways of getting wasted.

      • Sandgroper says:

        In TCM, it was often the association of corresponding animal body parts and functions that suggested things to try.

      • Sandgroper says:

        It’s maybe worth noting that traditional Chinese medicine has always been totally unregulated, so the line between ‘folk medicine’ and ‘respectable’ highly trained practitioners from well regarded schools of Chinese medicine is completely blurred, and the whole thing is beset by all manner of quackery. The more respected TCM practitioners themselves condemn bear bile farming as an exceedingly cruel and inhumane practice. The Chinese authorities try to stop it.

      • kaa says:

        FWIW, I recall reading long ago (forget the source) that Indians and early “mountain men” frequently ate raw, bile coated liver while butchering newly killed bison. The implication was that bile filled in for their lack of available salt/seasonings and their otherwise bland diets. If true, it would be easy to assume the same might occur with bears.

    • Captain Tripps says:

      Well, somewhere in the ancient mists of time, someone thought to eat the distant forbear of cheese. Since its essentially just curdled milk (another animal bodily fluid), you have to wonder how that caught on, since I accidentally tasted curdled milk once, and I threw up and had the dry heaves.

  11. says:

    It could be him.

    “””Shennong is said in the Huainanzi to have tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medical value. The most well-known work attributed to Shennong is The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root ClassicThe most well-known work attributed to Shennong is The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic … includes 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals. Shennong is credited with identifying hundreds of medical (and poisonous) herbs by personally testing their properties, …”””

    It was alledged he died from testing one of those poisons He was also known as the Flame Emperor Many Chinese historians have claimed that that got nothing to link to him to having red hair. Nevertheless, the name of his tribe Jiang in Chinese is used to describe people with red hairs. They also have to explain why in the Hapmap over 40% of modern Chinese are carriers of the red hair gene variant Incidentally this particular variant was proven to be mutated from the variant from the Altaic Neandertal.

    • Sandgroper says:

      I note that Shennong allegedly refined the understanding of acupuncture and moxibustion – both of which are totally, utterly useless. I don’t think that about all traditional Chinese medicine, but those two have been comprehensively shown to be at best a waste of time.

      Interesting side note about the red hair gene variant, though. I wouldn’t mind learning more about that. All this time, my daughter has been blaming me for the burnished copper coloured hairs that she grows in amongst her black hair, when the responsible carrier might have been her mother, not me. Well, I know I am a carrier, because although my hair is black, my beard grows out red, but it is a ginger red from my father, not the deep burnished copper colour my daughter has.

      • Old fogey says:

        Your daughter doesn’t like having burnished copper hair among her black? Amazing. I would think she would treasure it. I bet many people think she pays outlandish sums of money to a salon capable of doing such a job.

        • Sandgroper says:

          My daughter? Ha! She won’t even contemplate wearing any kind of make-up (and doesn’t need it) or having her ears pierced, let alone letting someone style or colour her hair. She’s not any kind of militant feminist, she detests them as a bunch of morons; she’s just a STEM girl in love with Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics who thinks all that ‘girly’ stuff is trivial and stupid. She has the luxury of doing that – she is naturally physically beautiful without any kind of adornment or artificial aide, and in very good physical shape from her favourite pastime of hiking in the hills, so she can afford to prefer to be ‘completely natural’ just the way she is. Plus she has a blazing quick-fire temper, razor sharp tongue and does not suffer fools gladly (can’t imagine where she got that), so people who are unwise enough to make gratuitous comments about how ‘special’ or ‘unusual’ her appearance is often very quickly find themselves regretting it.

          The golden hairs really stand out and become dazzlingly obvious in direct sunlight. She doesn’t mind the hairs, what really ticks her off is a lifetime of people constantly commenting on them, like she’s some kind of freak, or like they’re telling her something she doesn’t know about herself. Hybrid kids can have a tough time growing up. Genes are discreet, not blending, obviously, so in a first generation hybrid (in this case, between a mostly Northwestern European father and a mostly Northern Han mother), the pieces of the mosaic sampled from both sides can be quite obvious, like half epicanthic eye folds, for example, and the kids get constantly picked on for being something unnatural, weird or strange, so even people just telling them that they are somehow ‘special’ and meaning it as a compliment gets to be really tedious. If you asked a sample of first generation hybrids, I would bet the farm that over 90% of them would say that they just want to be treated like normal ordinary people. You’ll get a few twits waffling meaninglessly about ‘celebrating their heritage’ or whatever, but most hybrids won’t – if they dig into the culture and language on both sides like my daughter has, they mostly do it without trying to make any big deal out of it. In truth, most hybrids ultimately pick just one side by the time they reach adulthood; people like my daughter who are fully fluent and conversant with both sides are relatively rare.

  12. Sandgroper says:

    While we’re at it, we might as well expose some bad Western medical research – part of many, according to John Ioannidis:

      • j says:

        Vitamin C is an antioxidant and millions take it against flu. Are we to assume now that Linus Pauling would be alive if he did not catch that megadosis madness?

        • Anonymous says:

          I have never seen any convincing evidence that taking Vitamin C has any effect against flu. Taking massive doses of anything in pill form just seems self-evidently to be not a great idea

          I can tell you what has worked for me from personal experience:

          If you feel early enough that you are developing the symptoms of flu, and really can’t afford to get sick at that particular time, then taking the anti-viral drug Tamiflu (or there are others) will prevent the symptoms from developing further, so you can remain fully functional. But note warning – anti-virals are serious drugs and not to be played with casually. They suppress the immune system. I took it once – we were just about to take off on an overseas family holiday and I felt myself coming down with the unmistakeable early symptoms of flu – I happened to have some Tamiflu (which I had purchased sans prescription during the SARS epidemic, which was a bit naughty of me, but what the hell – if the medical profession won’t or can’t look after you, you sometimes need to take your own care into your own hands, with the assistance of a friendly pharmacist), so I took it. It stopped the flu dead in its tracks and I was able to go on holiday and enjoy it, no problems at all. Worked like magic. But my understanding is that you need to start taking anti-virals within 24 hours of noticing the first symptoms, otherwise they can be ineffective. And I repeat – they are not candies; not to be taken lightly. I would say now probably only in extreme circumstances.
          For at least the last 15 years, probably longer, I have had at least one annual flu vaccination, at the start of every winter when the new annual vaccine becomes available. If I happen to be travelling to the southern hemisphere, I have an extra one when I get there, because the prevailing strains are somewhat out of synch in the two different hemispheres. Ever since I have been getting vaccinated, I have contracted the flu precisely twice – both times only mildly. Before I started getting vaccinations, I could positively count on getting flu at least twice per year quite badly, sometimes more than twice, and often with after-effects/complications (bronchitis, pneumonia, neither of which are remotely funny).
          Zinc does have some ameliorative effect on cold symptoms. That’s a proven. It’s a bit of help, but not huge.

          I’m now heading into the age bracket when the complications of flu can be serious and sometimes fatal. I’m going to do anything that, in my experience, gives me some protection, and that means vaccination. Plus just the avoidance of the down time and feeling lousy makes it a no-brainer for me.

        • Sandgroper says:

          Crap. I just wrote you a longish reply, and it’s disappeared. If Greg rescues it out of the spam filter, fine. If not, or if it just vanished because I forgot to fill in my details, I don’t feel like writing it all out again – so maybe I will, in smaller pieces, or maybe I won’t.

        • Sandgroper says:

          OK, because you are long time Internet buddy (sort of) and I have nothing better to do, I will respond in shorter chunks – mainly because I think I have some good advice to impart.

          First, I have never seen any convincing evidence, or even anything anecdotal, that Vitamin C prevents catching flu or ameliorates the symptoms. I never found it helpful at all myself. Plus taking megadoses of anything just seems intuitively like not a great idea. Even so, Pauling survived to 93, which is not a bad innings. If he was still alive now, he would be 116, which seems like a bit of a stretch.

        • Sandgroper says:

          Things I have found that actually work well for me: Part 1.

          During the SARS epidemic, I acquired some Tamiflu (an anti-viral drug – there are others) without a prescription, with the assistance of a friendly pharmacist, which was a bit naughty of both of us, but when you need to protect your family and the medical profession either can’t or won’t do anything to protect your family, what are you going to do?

          I never needed to use the Tamiflu for SARS, but sunsequently, just when we were preparing to go off on a long-anticipated overseas family holiday, I felt myself getting the unmistakeable early symptoms of flu. So I threw caution to the wind, and took some of the Tamiflu. It worked like magic – stopped the flu virus dead in its tracks, and the symptoms did not progress any further, and I was able to go off on my holiday feeling absolutely fine.

          But a heavy word of caution here – anti-virals are not candies, they are very serious drugs with some serious side effects. For one thing, they suppress the immune system. So I would counsel extreme caution in taking anti-virals, and only in pretty dire circumstances. I was a bit devil-may-care in those days – I doubt I would be so ready to experiment with such a drug today, without the advice of a physician.

        • Sandgroper says:

          So far, so good. Part 2:

          For at least the past 15 years I have been getting an annual flu vaccination, right at the beginning of winter when the new vaccine comes out. If I happen to be travelling to the southern hemisphere, I will get an extra vaccination when I get down there, because the prevalent flu strains at any one time are somewhat out of step with each other in the two hemispheres. In those 15 or so years, I have come down with a dose of flu precisely twice; both times only mildly. Before I started getting vaccinated, I could absolutely count on getting flu pretty badly at least twice every year, and in some years more often; and sometimes with complications (bronchitis or pneumonia, neither of which is funny).

          I am now getting into the age bracket where flu or its complications can often be very serious or even fatal. If an annual vaccination is going to prevent that, I’m going to get it’ plus, just the avoidance of the down time and feeling lousy makes it worth it. I have never had any bad reaction to the vaccine, and so far it was worked very well for me. OK, sample of one, but it has definitely worked. I can sit working in a crowded office surrounded by people who are all coughing, spluttering and sneezing from whichever prevalent strain happens to be circulating (mind you, they are all very conscientious about wearing masks while they think they are infectious, but that’s not that fool-proof), and not get infected. For the sake of one jab which costs me about US$12, it’s some insurance I’m very willing to buy. And now my wife and daughter are both so convinced by my experience that they get an annual jab to (and my daughter is no biological dummy – she majored in Biochemistry and Genetics, and understands this stuff better than most people.)

          So, there you go, j – that’s the best advice I can give you. Forget the pill megadoses and get an annual flu vaccination. And you might as well get a once-in-a-lifetime vaccination against Streptococcus pneumoniae while you are at it. I’ve had that too.

          I once spent 4 very deeply unpleasant days locked inside the infectious diseases ward of a public hospital, suffering from pneumonia and pleuritis, and I do not ever want to go back there again. Not ever.

        • Sandgroper says:

          Oh great – so now my missing comment shows up as anonymous. Well, better to say it twice than not at all, I guess.

  13. dearieme says:

    When children get stung by a nettle they rub their skin with dock leaf. Some adults with rheumatism claim that nettle stings can relieve the symptoms. Have the active ingredients of both these plants been fully explored?

    • melendwyr says:

      Yes, with nettle, and it’s a combination of two neurotransmitters, neither of which is particularly irritating without the other.
      Investigating the dock is pretty pointless, as any moist leaf is moderately effective at neutralizing nettle stings.

    • whyteablog says:

      Reminds me of apitherapy, which IIRC began with old ladies getting bees to sting their arthritic knuckles.

      Some scientists have been claiming that their research has vindicated this practice. I haven’t really looked into it, so I wouldn’t know. But it might be a good idea to see if bee stings and nettle stings have something in common.

  14. Samuel E. Hancock says:

    I have just finished reading “The Youngest Science” by Lewis Thomas. This is a autobiography of his early years as a young internist and doctor. One of the stories he talks about concerns a uniformly fatal disease called pernicious anemia and the use of liver extract (discovery made in 1926) to effect a cure. (We now understand this because animal liver contains copious amounts of vitamin B12, which the body uses to create red blood cells.) This discovery was originally based upon a study (by Dr. George Whipple) of dogs, which were being made anemic by repeated bleedings and then fed copious amounts of liver, which helped in reconstituting their blood. (It was finally determined that the iron in the lever and not the B12 is what helped the dogs recover; however, this was not yet known.) This study was the basis of the trial by Dr. George Minot (with the help of Dr. William P. Murphy) who fed liver to affected patients and observed their recovery. (They won a Nobel prize for this, by the way.) Dr. Lewis then relates a story told by an internist in the early 1920’s who could have made the discovery and won the Nobel himself if he had only been paying attention. It seems he had a patient (a fairly wealthy spinster) who had the disease but baffled him and his colleagues by remaining in vigorous good health despite receiving no treatment. Years after the initial discovery was announced, she remarked to him that she had always adored pate de foie gras and ate jar after jar through all of those years.

    • dearieme says:

      Would calf’s liver, bacon, and onions achieve the same end for plebs?

      Would chicken liver and bacon pate?

      I’m sure that polar bear liver would: isn’t it said to have such an excess that it can kill humans? The liver, I mean, not the cuddly-wuddly, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly bear.

    • Old fogey says:

      How good to hear that people are still reading Lewis Thomas. He was one of my favorites long ago when I was in my 20s. Such a good writer.

  15. tautology123 says:

    So whats up with rhino horns?

    • Sandgroper says:

      Voodoo. Pure useless nonsense.

    • Sandgroper says:

      Same applies to consuming tiger penises, which doesn’t do the tigers much good either. I am less clear on whether the consumption of stuff made from tiger bones does any good in the treatment of arthritic conditions, but if there is an active ingredient that actually does any good, they should have isolated and identified it by now, so I’m guessing no.

      Same with snake wine – almost certainly complete quackery.

  16. deuce says:

    I’d forgotten about Gundeshapur. The Sassanids were certainly preferable to what came after. I can just about guarantee the average IQ in Persia on the eve of the Muslim conquest was higher than it is now.

  17. Dave Pinsen says:

    Related to this, from a microbiologist in Nottingham:

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