In early 1915, less than a year into the First World War, Private Ernest Cable, a 28-year-old British soldier serving in the 2nd Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, stumbled into No. 14 Stationary Hospital in Wimereux, France. He was suffering from severe abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea. Doctors diagnosed him with dysentery. Not long after, Cable was dead.
Nicholas Thomson, a genomicist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, first came to know of Cable’s lethal infection at a conference in October 2011. At the meeting, he met a woman named Philippa “Pippa” Bracegirdle, who worked in the archives of the UK National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC), the oldest collection of bacterial cultures in the world. Over a drink, Bracegirdle mentioned that the collection contained an isolate of Shigella, the dysentery-causing kin of E. coli that had killed Cable. Later identified as Shigella flexneri serotype 2a, it was the first bacterial isolate deposited in NCTC’s now 5,000-sample-strong biobank.