The Coffin Cure

by Alan Edward Nourse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Doctor Coffin, in collaboration with other doctors, discovers a cure, but it has a surprisingly strong side effect.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

When the discovery was announced, it was Dr. Chauncey Patrick Coffin who announced it. He had, of course, arranged with uncanny skill to take most of the credit for himself. If it turned out to be greater than he had hoped, so much the better. His presentation was scheduled for the last night of the American College of Clinical Practitioners’ annual meeting, and Coffin had fully intended it to be a bombshell.

It was. Its explosion exceeded even Dr. Coffin’s wilder expectations, which took quite a bit of doing. In the end he had waded through more newspaper reporters than medical doctors as he left the hall that night. It was a heady evening for Chauncey Patrick Coffin, M.D.

Certain others were not so delighted with Coffin’s bombshell.

“It’s idiocy!” young Dr. Phillip Dawson wailed in the laboratory conference room the next morning. “Blind, screaming idiocy. You’ve gone out of your mind--that’s all there is to it. Can’t you see what you’ve done? Aside from selling your colleagues down the river, that is?” He clenched the reprint of Coffin’s address in his hand and brandished it like a broadsword. “‘Report on a Vaccine for the Treatment and Cure of the Common Cold,’ by C. P. Coffin, et al. That’s what it says--et al. My idea in the first place. Jake and I both pounding our heads on the wall for eight solid months--and now you sneak it into publication a full year before we have any business publishing a word about it.”

“Really, Phillip!” Dr. Chauncey Coffin ran a pudgy hand through his snowy hair. “How ungrateful! I thought for sure you’d be delighted. An excellent presentation, I must say--terse, succinct, unequivocal--” he raised his hand--”but generously unequivocal, you understand. You should have heard the ovation--they nearly went wild! And the look on Underwood’s face! Worth waiting twenty years for.”

“And the reporters,” snapped Phillip. “Don’t forget the reporters.” He whirled on the small dark man sitting quietly in the corner. “How about that, Jake? Did you see the morning papers? This thief not only steals our work, he splashes it all over the countryside in red ink.”

Dr. Jacob Miles coughed apologetically. “What Phillip is so stormed up about is the prematurity of it all,” he said to Coffin. “After all, we’ve hardly had an acceptable period of clinical trial.”

“Nonsense,” said Coffin, glaring at Phillip. “Underwood and his men were ready to publish their discovery within another six weeks. Where would we be then? How much clinical testing do you want? Phillip, you had the worst cold of your life when you took the vaccine. Have you had any since?”

“No, of course not,” said Phillip peevishly.

“Jacob, how about you? Any sniffles?”

“Oh, no. No colds.”

“Well, what about those six hundred students from the University? Did I misread the reports on them?”

“No--98 per cent cured of active symptoms within twenty-four hours. Not a single recurrence. The results were just short of miraculous.” Jake hesitated. “Of course, it’s only been a month...”

“Month, year, century! Look at them! Six hundred of the world’s most luxuriant colds, and now not even a sniffle.” The chubby doctor sank down behind the desk, his ruddy face beaming. “Come, now, gentlemen, be reasonable. Think positively! There’s work to be done, a great deal of work. They’ll be wanting me in Washington, I imagine. Press conference in twenty minutes. Drug houses to consult with. How dare we stand in the path of Progress? We’ve won the greatest medical triumph of all times--the conquering of the Common Cold. We’ll go down in history!”

And he was perfectly right on one point, at least.

They did go down in history.

The public response to the vaccine was little less than monumental. Of all the ailments that have tormented mankind through history none was ever more universal, more tenacious, more uniformly miserable than the common cold. It was a respecter of no barriers, boundaries, or classes; ambassadors and chambermaids snuffled and sneezed in drippy-nosed unanimity. The powers in the Kremlin sniffed and blew and wept genuine tears on drafty days, while senatorial debates on earth-shaking issues paused reverently upon the unplugging of a nose, the clearing of a rhinorrheic throat. Other illnesses brought disability, even death in their wake; the common cold merely brought torment to the millions as it implacably resisted the most superhuman of efforts to curb it.

Until that chill, rainy November day when the tidings broke to the world in four-inch banner heads:


“No More Coughin’” States Co-Finder of Cure


In medical circles it was called the Coffin Multicentric Upper Respiratory Virus-Inhibiting Vaccine; but the papers could never stand for such high-sounding names, and called it, simply, “The Coffin Cure.”

Below the banner heads, world-renowned feature writers expounded in reverent terms the story of the leviathan struggle of Dr. Chauncey Patrick Coffin (et al.) in solving this riddle of the ages: how, after years of failure, they ultimately succeeded in culturing the causative agent of the common cold, identifying it not as a single virus or group of viruses, but as a multicentric virus complex invading the soft mucous linings of the nose, throat and eyes, capable of altering its basic molecular structure at any time to resist efforts of the body from within, or the physician from without, to attack and dispel it; how the hypothesis was set forth by Dr. Phillip Dawson that the virus could be destroyed only by an antibody which could “freeze” the virus-complex in one form long enough for normal body defenses to dispose of the offending invader; the exhausting search for such a “crippling agent,” and the final crowning success after injecting untold gallons of cold-virus material into the hides of a group of co-operative and forbearing dogs (a species which never suffered from colds, and hence endured the whole business with an air of affectionate boredom).

And finally, the testing. First, Coffin himself (who was suffering a particularly horrendous case of the affliction he sought to cure); then his assistants Phillip Dawson and Jacob Miles; then a multitude of students from the University--carefully chosen for the severity of their symptoms, the longevity of their colds, their tendency to acquire them on little or no provocation, and their utter inability to get rid of them with any known medical program.

They were a sorry spectacle, those students filing through the Coffin laboratory for three days in October: wheezing like steam shovels, snorting and sneezing and sniffling and blowing, coughing and squeaking, mute appeals glowing in their blood-shot eyes. The researchers dispensed the materials--a single shot in the right arm, a sensitivity control in the left.

With growing delight they then watched as the results came in. The sneezing stopped; the sniffling ceased. A great silence settled over the campus, in the classrooms, in the library, in classic halls. Dr. Coffin’s voice returned (rather to the regret of his fellow workers) and he began bouncing about the laboratory like a small boy at a fair. Students by the dozen trooped in for checkups with noses dry and eyes bright.

In a matter of days there was no doubt left that the goal had been reached.

“But we have to be sure,” Phillip Dawson had cried cautiously. “This was only a pilot test. We need mass testing now, on an entire community. We should go to the West Coast and run studies there--they have a different breed of cold out there, I hear. We’ll have to see how long the immunity lasts, make sure there are no unexpected side effects...” And, muttering to himself, he fell to work with pad and pencil, calculating the program to be undertaken before publication.

But there were rumors. Underwood at Stanford, they said, had already completed his tests and was preparing a paper for publication in a matter of months. Surely with such dramatic results on the pilot tests something could be put into print. It would be tragic to lose the race for the sake of a little unnecessary caution...

Peter Dawson was adamant, but he was a voice crying in the wilderness. Chauncey Patrick Coffin was boss.

Within a week even Coffin was wondering if he had bitten off just a trifle too much. They had expected that demand for the vaccine would be great--but even the grisly memory of the early days of the Salk vaccine had not prepared them for the mobs of sneezing, wheezing red-eyed people bombarding them for the first fruits.

Clear-eyed young men from the Government Bureau pushed through crowds of local townspeople, lining the streets outside the Coffin laboratory, standing in pouring rain to raise insistent placards.

Seventeen pharmaceutical houses descended like vultures with production plans, cost-estimates, colorful graphs demonstrating proposed yield and distribution programs. Coffin was flown to Washington, where conferences labored far into the night as demands pounded their doors like a tidal wave.

One laboratory promised the vaccine in ten days; another said a week. The first actually appeared in three weeks and two days, to be soaked up in the space of three hours by the thirsty sponge of cold-weary humanity. Express planes were dispatched to Europe, to Asia, to Africa with the precious cargo, a million needles pierced a million hides, and with a huge, convulsive sneeze mankind stepped forth into a new era.

There were abstainers, of course. There always are.

“It doesn’t bake eddy differets how much you talk,” Ellie Dawson cried hoarsely, shaking her blonde curls. “I dod’t wadt eddy cold shots.”

“You’re being totally unreasonable,” Phillip said, glowering at his wife in annoyance. She wasn’t the sweet young thing he had married, not this evening. Her eyes were puffy, her nose red and dripping. “You’ve had this cold for two solid months now, and there just isn’t any sense to it. It’s making you miserable. You can’t eat, you can’t breathe, you can’t sleep.”

“I dod’t wadt eddy cold shots,” she repeated stubbornly.

“But why not? Just one little needle, you’d hardly feel it.”

“But I dod’t like deedles!” she cried, bursting into tears. “Why dod’t you leave be alode? Go take your dasty old deedles ad stick theb id people that wadt theb.”

“Aw, Ellie--”

“I dod’t care, I dod’t like deedles!” she wailed, burying her face in his shirt.

He held her close, making comforting little noises. It was no use, he reflected sadly. Science just wasn’t Ellie’s long suit; she didn’t know a cold vaccine from a case of smallpox, and no appeal to logic or common sense could surmount her irrational fear of hypodermics. “All right, nobody’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to,” he said.

“Ad eddyway, thik of the poor tissue badufacturers,” she sniffled, wiping her nose with a pink facial tissue. “All their little childred starvig to death.”

“Say, you have got a cold,” said Phillip, sniffing. “You’ve got on enough perfume to fell an ox.” He wiped away tears and grinned at her. “Come on now, fix your face. Dinner at the Driftwood? I hear they have marvelous lamb chops.”

It was a mellow evening. The lamb chops were delectable--the tastiest lamb chops he had ever eaten, he thought, even being blessed with as good a cook as Ellie for a spouse. Ellie dripped and blew continuously, but refused to go home until they had taken in a movie, and stopped by to dance a while. “I hardly ever gedt to see you eddy bore,” she said. “All because of that dasty bedicide you’re givig people.”

It was true, of course. The work at the lab was endless. They danced, but came home early nevertheless. Phillip needed all the sleep he could get.

He awoke once during the night to a parade of sneezes from his wife, and rolled over, frowning sleepily to himself. It was ignominious, in a way--his own wife refusing the fruit of all those months of work.

And cold or no cold, she surely was using a whale of a lot of perfume.

He awoke, suddenly, began to stretch, and sat bolt upright in bed, staring wildly about the room. Pale morning sunlight drifted in the window. Downstairs he heard Ellie stirring in the kitchen.

For a moment he thought he was suffocating. He leaped out of bed, stared at the vanity table across the room. “Somebody’s spilled the whole damned bottle--

The heavy sick-sweet miasma hung like a cloud around him, drenching the room. With every breath it grew thicker. He searched the table top frantically, but there were no empty bottles. His head began to spin from the sickening effluvium.

He blinked in confusion, his hand trembling as he lit a cigarette. No need to panic, he thought. She probably knocked a bottle over when she was dressing. He took a deep puff, and burst into a paroxysm of coughing as acrid fumes burned down his throat to his lungs.

“Ellie!” He rushed into the hall, still coughing. The match smell had given way to the harsh, caustic stench of burning weeds. He stared at his cigarette in horror and threw it into the sink. The smell grew worse. He threw open the hall closet, expecting smoke to come billowing out. “Ellie! Somebody’s burning down the house!”

“Whadtever are you talking about?” Ellie’s voice came from the stair well. “It’s just the toast I burned, silly.”

He rushed down the stairs two at a time--and nearly gagged as he reached the bottom. The smell of hot, rancid grease struck him like a solid wall. It was intermingled with an oily smell of boiled and parboiled coffee, overpowering in its intensity. By the time he reached the kitchen he was holding his nose, tears pouring from his eyes. “Ellie, what are you doing in here?

She stared at him. “I’b baking breakfast.”

“But don’t you smell it?”

“Sbell whadt?” said Ellie.

On the stove the automatic percolator was making small, promising noises. In the frying pan four sunnyside eggs were sizzling; half a dozen strips of bacon drained on a paper towel on the sideboard. It couldn’t have looked more innocent.

Cautiously, Phillip released his nose, sniffed. The stench nearly choked him. “You mean you don’t smell anything strange?”

“I did’t sbell eddythig, period,” said Ellie defensively.

“The coffee, the bacon--come here a minute.”

She reeked--of bacon, of coffee, of burned toast, but mostly of perfume. “Did you put on any fresh perfume this morning?”

“Before breakfast? Dod’t be ridiculous.”

“Not even a drop?” Phillip was turning very white.

“Dot a drop.”

He shook his head. “Now, wait a minute. This must be all in my mind. I’m--just imagining things, that’s all. Working too hard, hysterical reaction. In a minute it’ll all go away.” He poured a cup of coffee, added cream and sugar.

But he couldn’t get it close enough to taste it. It smelled as if it had been boiling three weeks in a rancid pot. It was the smell of coffee, all right, but a smell that was fiendishly distorted, overpoweringly, nauseatingly magnified. It pervaded the room and burned his throat and brought tears gushing to his eyes.

Slowly, realization began to dawn. He spilled the coffee as he set the cup down. The perfume. The coffee. The cigarette...

“My hat,” he choked. “Get me my hat. I’ve got to get to the laboratory.”

It got worse all the way downtown. He fought down waves of nausea as the smell of damp, rotting earth rose from his front yard in a gray cloud. The neighbor’s dog dashed out to greet him, exuding the great-grandfather of all doggy odors. As Phillip waited for the bus, every passing car fouled the air with noxious fumes, gagging him, doubling him up with coughing as he dabbed at his streaming eyes.

Nobody else seemed to notice anything wrong at all.

The bus ride was a nightmare. It was a damp, rainy day; the inside of the bus smelled like the men’s locker room after a big game. A bleary-eyed man with three-days’ stubble on his chin flopped down in the seat next to him, and Phillip reeled back with a jolt to the job he had held in his student days, cleaning vats in the brewery.

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