Friday, August 6, 2010

Ignoring 'day jobs' at our peril

Historians may think they are telling a faster paced tale when they leave out the minutiae
of ordinary daily life to focus on the high points of their subject's life - reasoning that these dramatic episodes are why you are buying their book.

But real people - even larger-than-life heroic real people - are worn down each day by picking up baby nappies at the store, taking out the trash, dealing with colleagues and relatives, answering routine letters or phone calls.

Remembering Mother's Day cards -- trying to fix a bank overdraft.

Perhaps the events they are famous for only took up a small fraction of each day during the period in question - squeezed in between the rest of their life.

All the more credit then for changing diapers and changing the world - when most of us can barely get through our routine day.

Alexander Fleming was ,mostly, the manager of a very large Vaccine Factory -- he discovered penicillin in his spare time.

I will not be the first or the last to say that how he dealt with penicillin after he discovered it was highly colored by the need to keep his vaccine factory profitable - because it paid for the entire institute he worked for.

Florey's day job was even more demanding - he did his famous mouse experiment in Room 46 of the Dunn Institute of Pathology that he ran.

That room number alone should tell how truly huge the Dunn Pathology Building really was.

He could have a hundred people in and about that building - and because he didn't have a hugely profitable vaccine line to sustain it, he spent most of his time trying to secure long term grants to pay them and buy them supplies and equipment.

He always freely admitted that is why he got interested in life-saving penicillin--- as an easy way for an increasingly desperate Institute Director to secure a nice large long term grant.

An honest account of Florey and penicillin would also mention his personal research interests outside of penicillin - which ranged very widely.

 His mistress/closest co-worker intimated in a famous postscript in a letter to Norman Heatley that not till early 1942, four years after the penicillin project got started at Florey's institute, did it become the top research interest of Florey himself !

So for the years 1938-1941, how much time did Florey really give each day to the only research work he is remembered for today?

And Alfred Newton Richards over at the OSRD CMR - how much time did he really give to penicillin on a day by day basis ?

Supposedly plenty to judge by the hagiographies he had commissioned.

But when I follow the actual money trail from the OSRD to penicillin researchers --- or rather the non-money trail ---- I am left feeling he did nothing for penicillin much of the time.

Most of the millions he dished out each year - when millions meant plenty - went elsewhere - and I trust the money trail far more than I trust the post-success spin doctors.

Martin Henry Dawson had a day job too.

He ran an Arthritis Clinic - and in those days, arthritis was a symptom, not a cluster of diseases - much as fever isn't a disease but a symptom of many diseases.

Arthritis occurs ,transiently, in many diseases, so trying to determine what unusual disease a person might mean dragging them over to Dawson to get his opinion.

This kept the job interesting but it meant that it couldn't be regarded as a routine affair that could be handed of to a junior member while Dawson engaged in his personal research interests.

He fitted in his penicillin work between the Clinic hours, teaching classes, marking papers, doing grand rounds, helping grad students, attending committee meetings - going to his Dad's funeral back in Nova Scotia - picking up a great Persian carpet cheap the day the World's Fair closed.

Maybe while picking up baby food for the new baby because Marjorie was running late at her school.

Or maybe he did some penicillin work in between sitting down on a couch to recover his strength as his Myasthenia Gravis kicked in.

That is Real Life stuff.

And I intend to put Real Life back into my account of the Penicillin Saga.

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