The Believers

Hazel Barton: Medicine Hunter

Dec 1, 2005
Outside Magazine


SHE MAY SEEM AN UNLIKELY SAVIOR—with a map of a South Dakota cave tattooed on one biceps, a well-behaved women rarely make history bumper sticker on her truck, and a starring role in the 2001 Imax film Journey into Amazing Caves. But Barton, a 34-year-old Northern Kentucky University biology professor, is one of the best hopes for finding new antibiotics that could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. And she's searching underground. While the de facto scientific opinion holds that caves are microbiologically barren, Barton's research, conducted from Central America to Appalachia, has proven otherwise: Most are teeming with microorganisms armed with antibiotic weapons. To harvest them, Barton—who was born and raised in Britain—squirms through shoulder-wide passageways and rappels several stories into black pits, armed with a stash of microprobes, test tubes, and cotton swabs. Back in the lab, it may take months to extract the antibiotic agents, then years longer before effective drugs can be developed. But fortunately Barton—who's now scouting a secret cave in Kentucky for an antibiotic to knock out a nasty drug-resistant, tissue-dissolving strain of the common staph infection—is in it for the long haul. "Population control should be done through education and policy, not human suffering," she says. "As long as tools are available to reduce that suffering, I'll try to find them."