Among the more than 100,000 items in the Smithsonian's medical collections are a horse's halter and a vial of botulinum antitoxin derived from horse's blood. Botulinum toxin is the most powerful and deadly of all natural poisons — gram for gram more lethal than nerve agents.
The halter and vial of antitoxin came from First Flight, a 1,200-pound thoroughbred that holds a record of service to this country few humans or animals can rival.
After being injected by U.S. Army researchers with inactivated toxins to stimulate his immune system, First Flight became, in 1990, the world's only known source of antitoxin against all known types of the neurotoxin that causes botulism — a paralyzing, and potentially fatal, disease. For at least one young family, the existence of that antitoxin turned a terrifying ordeal into a story with a happy ending.
On December 29, 1997, Tracy Baird gave birth by cesarean section to a third daughter, Tessler. Three days later, Tracy and her husband, William, took their baby home.
Within 14 hours, Tessler had trouble breathing. "Panic was on her face," Tracy says. "I thought she was choking." The Bairds rushed Tessler to a nearby hospital.
"She was throwing herself up in the air, jerking her shoulders up to expand her lungs. I thought she was having a seizure," Tracy says. "But she was having trouble getting oxygen." Doctors placed her on a mechanical ventilator, and transferred her to Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
One hour later, her fingers barely stirred. "Her pupils weren't moving. She was paralyzed," Tracy remembers.
Initially, the doctors ruled out infant botulism as a diagnosis, because they knew of no cases in children less than a week old. The neurologist remarked that the child had the appearance of being brain dead, and warned the Bairds that if a brain scan confirmed that, they might want to consider taking her off the ventilator. But the test showed that Tessler was normal.
The doctors began to suspect infant botulism, and sent the Bairds to get a stool sample from Tessler's last diaper. The anxious parents and the doctors waited as the Ohio Department of Health examined the sample for toxins. Finally, after a few days had passed, word came back that Tessler, indeed, had infant botulism.
Infant botulism — unlike its adult counterparts — occurs when a baby ingests botulinum spores, as ubiquitous as the dust on which they may travel. Because of competing bacteria that mature humans usually have in their intestines, these bacterial spores are killed or pass through the system before they're able to produce toxin in adults. When adults get botulism, it is from a toxin created by bacteria outside the body, found in food, for instance, that is not cooked well enough to kill the bacteria, and then sealed, allowing these anaerobic microbes to create neurotoxin.