Friday, July 30, 2010

MedStudents Save Lives Sitting On Ass

If you think Columbia university medical students do good work on their feet, consider this:

Seventy years ago this Fall, they did some of their best life-saving work, while sitting on their buns and probably nodding off !

It happened this way:

Dr Dawson's Manhattan Pilot project to grow 700 2-litre flasks worth of penicillium medium required a lot of permanent space; permanent space his practical and commonsensical bosses were unwilling to allocate to him.

Eventually he found if he put the flasks under the seats at Columbia P&S's famous teaching amphitheatre , the butts of the (mostly male) med students would provide enough heat to allow the penicillium mold to "hatch".

The thought of  all those highly competitive, testosterone-driven studmuffins acting as brood hens , to birth the Era of Antibiotics seems an unlikely tale - but as in much of the Dawson saga, its all true....


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Foster, Woodruff & McDaniel: is it true?

More precisely, was it all of the truth - or was it published by the bosses of Merck as a deliberate half-truth?

I have a real "moral" problem with an scientific article from 1943.


Like 68 years ago?

Exactly - and one of the junior authors (Dr Boyd Woodruff) is still alive and active, albeit as active as any 94 year old scientist can be!

And he seems a very nice man from an interview or two I have read of his.

The article comes from "the research lab" of Merck, so I suppose Merck's production staff on the factory floor can always offer up a 'plausible deniability' of the article's claims.

It was submitted for publication on May 28 1943, and published in November 1943.

Most journals ,even then, let you add short addendums till very near the actual date of printing.

It is entitled :


Now it was no secret, then or now, that the Florey team in Oxford, along with his funders at the MRC and the Rockefeller Foundation,along with his friend John Fulton at Yale, together with the OSRD, the CMR, the chemical chief at NRRL (formerly from Yale), and the COC were all extremely close to George W Merck and Merck inc.

The head of the OSRD and its chief legal counsel, along with the head of the CMR and the head of the COC all ended up on the board or acting as consultants to Merck.

Their real bond was that almost all were chemist-manques --- or as we'd say today, chemist wannabes.

The prestige of chemists never shined brighter than the years of their growing up and adulthood and so they worshipped at its fountain only a little more fervently than the average educated person did.

Florey wanted to be a research chemist - his parents said being a medical doctor was more practical.

Richards ,the head of the CMR, was an indifferent student until he fell under the spell of a chemist - he ended up teaching the new subject of pharmacology - a very chemically-oriented area of expertise.

Merck had wanted to be a research chemist - his father's early death made him the head of his (very,very) chemically-oriented drug company.

Remind me to tell you a very funny story sometime on just how chemically-oriented Merck Inc was back in the 1930s.

Robert Coghill headed up the very biologically-oriented Fermentation Division at the NRRL, but he had been a chemist and longed to do real chemistry work - ie synthesize things.

Richards at the CMR really controlled penicillin in North America, to the extent anyone did.

This article won't have come out, unless Richards was 100% happy with it.

I re-stumbled on this article (I had read it many times before) when I had problems documenting a frequently made claim of other authors on early penicillin : that the chemistry of penicillin was the only area that was censored during the war years.

I found that articles on the general and specific chemistry of penicillin were extremely abundant from 1928-1943.

I found that for the period August 1941 to about January 1943, it was actually articles on the clinical use of penicillin that were totally non-existent, and on both sides of the Atlantic.

No where would 'Doctor Mom' finds reports in her local newspaper of people snatched from the jaws of death by penicillin during that crucial 18 month period - I think these good news stories were deliberately discouraged and held back until the drug companies and the government could produce a rabbit out of their hats.

And I found no mention anywhere, until Raper and Coghill's articles in May 1944 (when the penicillin crisis had ended in a sudden and unexpected total triumph) about the new productive sub-strains of  Fleming's original feeble penicillium mold developed at the NRRL from January 1942 onward.

(NRRL 1249 ,1249.B , 1249.B21)

Or of the way that production soared with the subsitution of corn steep liquor and lactose for sucrose and yeast extract,something the NRRL (and the OSRD/Richards) knew back in December 1941.

I got the distinct impression that nobody (except maybe Florey himself) knew about the real significance of lactose/corn liquor combo and not even Florey got access to these distinctly better sub-strains of penicillium.

Since Florey and Dawson (and lots of others) were struggling to produce their own penicillin until 1943-1944, ie from 2 years after these discoveries, news of all of this would have meant they would have got 10 to 20 times the yield from their existing equipment and staff effort.

They would no longer be beholden to the drug companies or the OSRD and Richards - which just might have been the point.

This article would have been read by the entire microbiology world - it was published in the Journal of Bacteriology (ASM), the leading microbiology journal in the Americas - a vast agriculturally advanced part of the world and so a hotbed of microbiological research of the practical sort.

The impression for a professional microbiologist reading this article , back in 1943,  is that Merck Inc ,itself, in mid-1943, had tested a few substrains of penicillium, finding some better and some worse than Fleming's original....all pretty ho hum.

And that it found the best medium to grow penicillin on was Dawson's dirty (cheap-impure-complex) brown sugar. Again the formula was publicly available and not really a great help for a hospital lab trying to produce enough penicillin to cure one extremely ill patient a month.

(I think the average teaching hospital laboratory department needed to produce about one million units of clinical penicillin a month without extraordinary requirements of staff, space or effort  if it was to feel it was worthwhile continuing working on clinical penicillin trials ,independent of what the drug companies and government would provide , ON THEIR TERMS.)

The Merck researchers said that they had tried lactose and found it no better than dirty brown sugar. No mention of corn steep liquor at all.

So was Merck using Fleming's old strain, and a dirty brown sugar medium to make all of its commercial penicillin in the Fall of 1943?

I do not believe so - and I will not believe so till I see dated photographs and hear eye witnesses under oath.

I accept that ,during war, firms and institutions will not tell their own citizens all what they are doing.

If you can't tell the truth about something, better to remain silent.

But I do not accept that you spread deliberate disinformation - which is what I think this article did - and still does.

I think it deliberately low-balled the state of the art, circa Fall 1943, of Merck's effort to increase the yield of penicillin juice produced by the mold, before the chemists stepped in to increase the yield of clinical penicillin concentrated from that juice.

This article feels like it was written in about March 1942, not in May or November 1943.

If that is so,who was it designed to mislead by being released ?

 Clearly not Squibb,Pfizer,Withrop,Abbott etc - those firms that had been working with penicillin for a few years and had a pretty good idea of the state of the art of natural penicillin production in mid to late 1943.

But hundreds of other firms might want to 'try their hand' at penicillin (175 firms did apply to do just that, just after this article was submitted).

Giving them just enough information to try their hand and then to retire discouraged might just be what the Merck leadership had in mind....

Coghill like Eisenhower had two speeches

It is well known that Eisenhower always prepared two speeches before each new amphibious landing.

The official one spoke of the day's success and gave all the credit to the brave boys who died to achieve it.

The unofficial one, prepared on a scrap of paper in pencil, also lauded the brave boys who died but it announced that the landing had failed and that Eisenhower took all the blame for the lack of success.

After every landing but one, he promptly tore up the scrap of paper and threw it away.

He called it his "In Case of Failure" speech.

But in the rush and excitement of D-Day, June 6th 1944, he clean forgot about tearing up this version of the speech.

On July 11th 1944, Eisenhower found the scrap of paper in a jacket pocket and showed it to his Naval  aide, Captain Harry C Butcher,while preparing to tear it up like he had always done before.

Butcher begged Eisenhower to let him keep it instead.

Reluctantly, the General gave it to him.

Fragile with the passage of time upon a piece of cheap acidic paper, it is now one of the most precious relics in the Eisenhower Museum.

I thought of this touching story when I read Robert D Coghill's famous public speech of May 1944 that he gave (with OSRD's full approval), just after watching vials of 100,000 units of NATURAL penicillin pouring off the line at Pfizer's Marcy Avenue plant faster than he could count.

That penicillin was destined for its first ever mass clinical trial --- on the bloody beaches of Normandy on June 6th 1944.

 NATURAL penicillin had both won the race to supply sufficient military penicillin vials before D-Day and had surprised everyone in the world of chemistry by beating man-made penicillin to the gate.

In the speech, Coghill, for the first time ,gave the details in a soon-to-be-cliched story of
how his NRRL facility in Peoria  (a branch of the US Department of Agriculture) had made the success of NATURAL penicillin all possible.

Charged with finding a use for thousands of tons of a farm waste product, the dank murky corn steep liquor left over from the wet conversion of corn into cornstarch, his NRRL staff had tried it as food on penicillin and presto,it turned out to be the one secret ingredient that neither Britain or Germany had and the only ingredient that made NATURAL penicillin production viable.

Cue happy smiling children recovering thanks to penicillin from Peoria - cue the happy Mid-West farmers & voters in Republican states thanking the Roosevelt administration for getting a good price for what was once a useless waste product they had to get rid of.

Cue Coghill's very happy bosses at USDA and the White House.

But Coghill had another speech ready, just in case what he had actually hoped for, had come about.

You see Coghill was a chemist ,not a biologist, and he was secretly hoping for the Nirvana of every chemist in those days - the full synthesis of some difficult yet important molecule.

On August 3rd 1943, when babies (cue the sobbing mothers) were dying because there was not enough clinical penicillin to give to most seriously ill civilians, Coghill and the NRRL bought 5 million units of clinical penicillin from the only firm actually making the stuff in any quantity (four years into a bloody war) - Reichel Labs, a backwoods mushroom farm ( I-Am-Not-Making-This-Up !!!!).

Coghill was not a medical doctor and the NRRL had no patients.

Actually, he and the NRRL staff were about to destroy the precious life-granting stuff, all in an attempt to synthesize it from ordinary industrial chemicals.

And if they had succeeded?

All those $$$$$ sales of their clients' corn steep liquor would have disappeared overnight.

But Coghill-the-survivor would have had his speech already prepared, making sure that the public and Congress knew the role he and the NRRL had had in creating the world's first SYNTHETIC penicillin.


Coghill, in his chilling way, convinces me that he could have survived - even flourished - in the Stalinist Politburo during the worst of the bureaucratic infighting - somehow that man's bread always managed to land butter side up....

Physics,Chemistry break 1940 promises

At the time of the New York World's Fair, with its theme of a learned gaze into the crystal ball to reveal the America of the 1960s, Big Physics and Big Chemistry made two firm promises:

Physics promised that with nuclear fission newly achieved, by 1960 your family home would be heated and lit by electricity '"too cheap to meter", made by atomic energy.

It also said that this war would be a clean quick war, hitting only military targets, as  B-17 bombers, with precision Norden bombsights, would be able to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel ,from 15,000 feet.

Chemistry pledged that your family would be disease free by the 1960s, "with hospitals no longer used for infectious diseases", thanks to pure,defined, man-made chemicals like the growing family of sulfa drugs.

But in 1945, atomic energy was used only to destroy homes (and the families inside).

(And with a bomb that powerful there was no need to aim, which was just as well ,as the Norden bombsights turned out to be useless.)

True, diseases were being held at bay, but not conquered, by 1945.

But not by the toxic and increasingly ineffective sulfa drugs.

Rather the success was due to penicillin - an impure,undefined mixture made by Nature and grown on an impure, undefined mixture of nutritional mediums also made by Nature.

And it was the humble science of biology that helped make it all work - while chemists only got in the way.

World War Two was NOT a triumph of nerdy,weedy scientists in spectacles winning the war when the stud muffin /BMOC /football captains of America proved unable to best the visiting German and Japanese teams out on the field.

This was the official take on World War Two Science, as produced by the leading science bureaucrats in their official and semi-official histories.

Because this 'revenge of the nerds' is so self-flattering to academics, even normally skeptical historians have lapped up the 'official version' like it was mother's milk.

In truth, Science suffered as many defeats to its ego during WWII as any over-confident general ever did.

In 1940, Man may have batted first, but by 1945 it was Nature that bats last: and Nature bats last and Nature bats long ....

It would perhaps be a bit much to ask today's historians to turn their sights on their colleagues and themselves and ask have they probed the truth of the penicillin saga or , to paraphrase Donald J McGraw,("On Leaving the Mine ", 1991) have they been content to merely uncritically retell tales already told too often ?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Remember Mercy", Hollywood 'High Concept'

In the Fall of 1940, Nazi bombers rained death and suffering down on Britain as a preliminary to a planned invasion and all Civilization trembled.

In this time of Wrath, a dying doctor forgot his own troubles to Remember Mercy... and ushered in the Age of Life-Saving Antibiotics.

Baby Patricia & Penicillin in Comic Book

In 1944, True Heroes Comic Books featured the inspiring story of Dr Dante Colitti  saving the life of two year old baby Patricia Malone, August 11th 1943, with some penicillin that he, the child's father and the Hearst media empire had wheedled out of a hard-nosed American medical establishment.

This was the event that made penicillin known world wide, virtually over night after 15 years of being ignored.

Colitti's hospital and Dr Dawson's hospital shared the same catchment area for patients, being only a mile apart.

 News of Dawson's cures, that Spring, of a number of women with the incurable disease of SBE  had spread like wildfire among the patients and staff of both hospitals , leading to Colitti trying the stuff on his dying young patient...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

outline for "Remember Mercy, Manhattan's OTHER Project,1940-1945"

As always, subject to changes, and changes back, and forth....

The cover will feature a group of the main characters clustered around a hospital bed, in mid August 1944, Presbyterian Hospital, New York City.

Clustered, as if posing for a photograph.

I don't know if any happy friend or relative of a family brought back from the brink of
death by Dr Dawson ever did take such a celebratory snapshot.

But I would be very surprised if none ever did.

The artwork painting is a vignette. A half circle of light emerald green paint ( aka institutional green) swirls across the top.

In huge hand lettering around that half circle of green, is Remember Mercy, letters so big they threatened to burst out beyond the edges of the paper.

From across a bookstore, those two words should be all that you can distinctly see or read.

Below the clustered figures and the hospital bed, in much smaller hand writing, is Manhattan's other Project, 1940-1945. Those words now curves upwards at either end, to symbolically complete the circle with the words above.

Below the words, the green emerald paint vignettes off.

This is the cover 'teaser' copy.

On the inside title page, the actual subtitle is simply Mo goes Po ,beneath  Remember Mercy.

Also on the title page, I mention this book is dedicated to the memory of Judith Hamel, "who like Dawson, was much too willing to step into the breach, when she was needed..." and indicate that I wrote it to inspire young people, considering a vocation in the Health Science...

Now back to the figures clustered around the hospital bed.

I don't know the name of the young mother in the bed, with her happy soldier husband and her new baby at her breast, only her age and her initials and the  key dates and medical details.

G.L. was 21 in 1944, born 1923 +/- , had had a child on March 5 1944, despite a history of Rheumatic Fever leading to serious heart problems.

I can only imagine many saying her getting pregnancy-induced terminal SBE served her right.

Dawson didn't agree.

On July 22nd he started her on Penicillin and in three days her blood was sterile of SBE bacterial colonies. On August 19th she went home to be with her husband, who had been granted leave, presumably to bury his wife and put his new child up for adoption.

Seen in 1945-1946 she remained a picture of perfect health .

But the date I am photographing is a little earlier, August 15th 1944,  it is the day that the very starts of the story effectively take leave of the story.

 I see GL having an IM drip of bright glowing yellow white penicillin flowing into her arm and the yellow glow of the fluid bag on high dominates the entire image.

But back to the two departing starts to this culmination scene.

Start #1 is Charlie Aronson, Patient One of the Age of Antibiotics, has been cured a second time of SBE by Dawson and penicillin.

He is almost certainly in a wheelchair, has had a stroke,perhaps is on a IV fluids bag, but he is a survivor,has beaten much worse.

Sure enough,Charlie, the patient with nine or more lives, is still around, when last checked in upon, in March 1946.

In another wheelchair, perhaps, is Start #2 , Dr Martin Henry Dawson, for whom August 1944 is also wrap in many senses.

Curing GL and Charlie is a wonderful end to this run of patients . JAMA's editor Morris Fishbein, head of the national medical censorship forces, has agreed to publish a long article from Dawson on his SBE successes since September 1940, in early 1945, so the article has to get started right away.

Since his own doctors and Dawson himself privately wonder if Dawson will be alive in early 1945, the earlier the publication the better: as a fitting culmination to a life well lived and a symbol of his triumph over the resistant of the medical elite, Fishbein among them, to his vision of what penicillin can do for SBE.

Dawson's name is on one or two more papers, but perhaps more in tribute, he is getting more and more life-threatening MG 'incidents' where his lung muscles suddenly stop working - ambulances, emergency care, oxygen
tanks, stays at home in enforced bed rest while he frets about his patients.

Perhaps Dawson has an oxygen tank with him this day, attached to his wheelchair, like Charlie.

Both Charlie and Dawson, frankly, look deathly ill. But they are grinning ,ear to ear, their two arms feebily locked in a victory clasp.

beside them is Marjorie, with her cane, for her bad days with her hip - here to take her husband off to celebrate.

Meyer & Chaffee are off busy with their hydraluronic acid work and Hobby is working at Pfizer - so the rest of the Mercy Project aren't available for this historic photo.

But Floyd Odlum is here, in his crutches and so is Dr Tom Hunter in his crutches.

The weak and the foolish, pause, for a photo shot, to mark their victory over the mighty and the wise....

Friday, July 23, 2010

Only now its "Les douze ans perdu"

People sometimes ask ,"how is my book on life in Canada's new frontier towns of the 1950s going?"

The book was called "Les dix ans trouve"  --- all about the postwar determination to make up for the years lost to the Great Depression AND World War One. 

That's right WW One - not WW Two .

Well I have abandoned that book, permanently I fear - for my new project on Martin Henry Dawson.

But do I look like a guy who wastes anything ?

Let alone someone who ever wastes research or literary scribbles.

Much of the earlier book's themes are still alive in the Dawson project -  only now the heroine is Ms Penicillin and her Great Depression lasts from the Fall of 1928 to the Fall of 1940.

In a tribute to the Broadfoot Depression classic "The Ten Lost Years" , her travails I call "The Twelve years Lost"....

read more about it over at the blog "Mo goes Po" .

(And check out that blog's fantastic collection of Martin Henry Dawson photos at "Mo goes Po" .)

Penicillin's "GREAT DEPRESSION" finally ends Oct16/40

She finally got a decent job, a real job,a permanent job, on that day in a small green room in New York City - and she has never really looked back.

For her, the nightmare of Les Douze Ans Perdu (The Twelve Years Lost), were finally over.

In relation to this seachange for Ms penicillin, the nicest thing I have found anyone ever said about Martin Henry Dawson was said, ironically, by one of his fiercest opponents.

Dr Stanhope Bayne-Jones and Dawson had clashed in 1939 at an important medical meeting, over the etiology of one variant of rat bite fever.

Things like this happen all the time - the best don't hold grudges, but Bayne-Jones did and more importantly, he was in 1941 a very big somebody in the nexus of academic-military-governmental medical affairs of an American nation about to go to war.

So in July 1941, when Howard Florey, desperately worried that Dawson was about to beat him to the laurels for penicillin ( Dawson was not competing with Florey - he was trying his darnest to help Florey, but Florey was nothing if not paranoid), asked Bayne-Jones about Dawson's reputation, he got an earful.

In strictest confidence Bayne-Jones confided, the guy is is quite honest, but "uncritically enthusiastic".

There are no worse words to hear for the sort of practical,sober,sensible men who end up as science administrators --- people like Florey and Bayne-Jones.

Penicillin, by contrast, loved those words.

For twelve long cold years, she had languished in the custody of sensible practical men.

Many had looked her over carefully, as if she was a possible choice of a new race horse , her good and bad points carefully and thoughtfully weighed but in the end, never once invited to the Meet.

Finally she had met a guy, with a lot of faults of his own, but someone who loved her unreservedly, despite of all her many downsides.

On the human side of things, he already had a wive and kids, and penicillin was far from being his only beau in science.

He had given his heart just as unreservedly to HGT & Quorum Sensing,  at a time when all the practical men dismissed it as just another laboratory oddity.

But what penicillin so badly needed right then was a little walk on the bad side, with a wild man and a fool, someone who drove too fast and loved too hard.

Any every once in a while, unlikely as it seems, the normally cautious Dawson threw off all traces and just 'went for it'.

His caution was frequently reserved most strongly for the fashionable verities of the day, and he was just as willing to champion an unfashionable idea if he felt it had merit , as he was to criticize an idea held up by all the authorities of the day as worthy of attention.

"Martin Henry Dawson: "Uncritically enthusiastic" for DNA & Penicillin, at a time when all the sensible authorities dismissed them"

I like it - it seems a suitable epitaph ...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

As Peaceful Atom fades, Penicillin steps in

At the promise of Atomic Energy "too cheap to meter "fades away, journalists have refocused on penicillin as proof that the Allied cause was just and worth all the deaths.

Penicillin has become proof that nations can work together to develop a common savior for all humanity - and that Big Science, like Big Media (where most journalists work), succeeds when freelancers like Alexander Fleming can only take things so far.

But I have said, viv vis 1940,'broad spectrum' Natural Penicillin and Atomic Bombs were definitely Plan B to the expected war-winners : tightly targeted Sulfa drugs and precision Norden Bomb Sights --- Pen and A-Bombs were the low tech solutions to  problems created when hi tech science failed big time...

Censorship/Propaganda joined at the Hip

Censorship or Propaganda only work if the two proceed in tandem: lies broadcast widely are only truly believed if the truth is first smothered and buried.

Almost all accounts of "the first ever x-type patient from the y-region treated/cured with penicillin" are untrue, lies and knowing lies, promoted by officials for a wide variety of reasons but never to simply tell the truth.

I collect these tales, with a mixture of anger at how readily journalists swallow bull feces
and sardonic amusement on the continued boldness of the liars.

Fleming and the dying policeman in Oxford (or is it at St Mary's?)

Florey and the policeman in Oxford.

Florey and Fleming fighting over their share of the glory of the first person treated with penicillin in America - a tale promoted originally by the bureaucrats at the American OSRD and then co-opted by the bureaucrats of the British Council and the American State Department.

Who was the first serviceman treated with penicillin - someone who got very drunk while off duty and woke up in hospital, the son of a Lord getting special treatment, or someone wounded in battle doing something very brave ?

Just guess who became the 'official first' there?

And then what about the first penicillin patients in those all important but sometimes awkward allies, the Canadians and the Aussies?

One account has the first Canadian treated (Picton Ontario) having  being abruptly refused any penicillin by the Banting Foundation and then having to beg the Americans for a little of their Yellow Magic - which they were happy to rush to Canada to save this life.

It rings true, but it was buried - showing the Banting Institute of all places as heartless was 'just not on' in 1940s Canada ! (Sir Banting was the country's only native born Nobel prize winner.)

Australia had a bit of a problem with Yankee soldiers and their womenfolk but both nations badly needed each other during World War Two.

An opportunity arose to literally revive the "hands across the water" cliche and officials on both sides of the Pacific ran with it.

A bomber raced across the vast Pacific with penicillin for the dying son of a serving Aussie Naval Officer ( note that detail - no penicillin being wasted on the useless 4Fs or their children...)

Leaving San Francisco, it landed in Brisbane and then a plane took it to Sydney, saving the child's life.

The story came out of Melbourne (March 22nd 1944), released by Sir Alan Newton, chairman of the Medical Supplies Co-ordination Committee.

Mouthful of a title - very busy VIP for sure.

An A1, not an A2, priority cable was sent ( as it always is, in these type of purple prosed newspaper stories) to Mr L R Macgregor, Director-General of the (Aussie) War Supplies Procurement Mission in Washington.

Another very busy VIP.

He got on the blower to the Surgeon General of the US Army,(very busy VIP III), who authorized 1 million units of penicillin  be put in dry ice and rushed by bomber to Brisbane, half a world away: in wartime, for a little boy, a non-combatant.

A few days later the boy is able to eat a normal meal - this is an essential part of all the penicillin stories involving little boys.

 A common variant is that they wake up after hovering between life and death for days and loudly ask "when's chow?" and mother bursts into tears with relief and the hint of water wells up in the eyes of even the hardest of surgeons, etc.

 Everybody knows all is it right with the world when a little boy's only thought is dinner.

This was officially described as "the first use of penicillin in Australia for civilians", in both countries.

Besides re-burnishing the 'hands across the water' friendship between Allies, the real intention of this whole charade was an attempt by these officials to reassure their twin bosses, the politicians and the voters that even during this busy deadly war, the Big People haven't forgotten 'the least among us', the little kiddies, the sick and dying children.

No stone was left unturned by the Big People to see that this innocent child's life was spared and while penicillin was in temporarily short supply, that problem "was being addressed" and soon all would have Penicillin.

 And Victory and Full Employment and Housing for All.

In reality, this was 'The sixteenth Year without Penicillin' and people were complaining why it was taking so long to arrive.

Meanwhile some people - whose names should be remembered and honored but sadly are not - were doing more than just complaining about government,science and industry's lack of action.

They were rolling up their sleeves and making their own penicillin.

I call this penicillin agape penicillin or amare penicillin - the words mean basically the same thing.

Amateurs,(amare), making penicillin not for their own gain, making penicillin to help others,(agape), not their family and friends or the powerful.

In Brisbane, remember the place where the bomber landed - that nowheresville on the map, that point of transit en route between Washington and Sydney?

That is where the first civilian lives were saved with penicillin in Australia - way back
in November 1943.

I have blogged in The Arcadian Recorder about this tiny team - I am particularly amazed that no Aussie journalist has seen the fact that the whole life-saving effort hung on the use of Vegemite wasn't worth of at least a 'brite' .

I think this is because the tribe of journalists still buy into the Big Lie that World War Two was won not by the Allies' Big Armies but by their Big Science.

Evidence of amateur science playing a key role in World War Two discomforts the average journalist's sense of 'knowing the lessons' of the war.

Doctor James Vincent Duhig, along with Doctors David Grey and M Geaney, remains unknown to this day in his native land or in the rest of the world, despite his tale being written up in journal articles in 1944 and 1945 and ending up as a chapter subsection in the biography of Sir Howard Florey, the Australian usually credited with Penicillin's success.

They saved lives with the most basic of equipment and with very limited access to technical information and expertise.

I think Duhig's story was censored by the most effective method known - by being simply ignored.

My thesis - In Wrath Remember Mercy (Mo goes Po) - is that the entire penicillin story was pushed along by the contributions of about a half dozen similar 'agape amateurs' : Henry Dawson,Robert Pulvertaft, Rudy Schullinger, Frank Queen,John Mahoney,Dante Colitti, Jim Duhig  - against the fulsome resistance of the penicillin bureaucracy and the pharma industry.

Let me credit one bureaucrat, Larry Elder of the WPB/OPRD, and one businessman, Harry Jephcott of Glaxo, as two more agape amateurs who should be honored fully.

Two others wanted to help and helped a very great deal, though I don't know their motives.

Raymond Rettew worked alone in rural Pennsylvia throughout 1942, working out such an successful  little bottle operation that for 4 months it produced the most penicillin in all the world - successfully shaming the pharma companies to stop talking and to start walking on serious penicillin production.

Milislav Demerec, at Cold Spring Harbour Institute on Long Island, made up for its very large role in making Eugenics respectable, by working for years on creating better strains of penicillin fungi - this was the real crucial breakthrough the OSRD missed with its fixed idee of chemical synthesis. Merck & the OSRD (really the same unit in reality) turned him down flat - lucky that the WPB & Larry Elder wasn't as blinkered as Newton Richards of the OSRD/Merck.

Duhig came along late to the process and his activities in isolated wartime Brisbane had no direct impact on the penicillin story , during World War Two.

But he has haunted it ever since.

Historians still ask if Fleming had been as willing to simply inject raw penicillin juice into dying patients in 1929 as Duhig was in 1943, those few lives saved might spurred on the medical community to take up penicillin when it was first discovered.

 And then millions of lives won't have been needlessly lost....

Monday, July 19, 2010

Columbia drops ball,Oxford runs with it

For ten months,(early September 1940-early July 1941) Columbia University had a clear lead on bringing mass produced penicillin to the world, but it blow it.

America had to give up its lead to Oxford University and the British. America lost the moral edge on this story.

But before Congress and the federal government bring out committees and commissions to investigate Columbia, it should remember it ,too, had a chance and it blew it.

"You sir, had a Choice"

Columbia and Washington may say 'we had no choice' but as Mulroney says, "you sir, had a choice."

During those same ten months, Columbia and America had another clear lead - in atomic energy.

This is the one that the federal government choose to fund, this is the one that Columbia administrators choose to find rooms for.

And as the Manhattan Project grew and grew, Columbia and the federal government found new rooms for it in the heart of Manhattan's traditional milk plant district, in north west Harlem, in the corridor connecting the downtown campus to the medical campus.

Even the Japanese hardly a milk-guzzling nation and totally cut off from all the events in Britain and America surrounding penicillin from 1940 to 1944, could instantly tell that every photo they could find of an interior of a penicillin plant looked like nothing but a typical milk plant.

Most of the world's first penicillin plants used the equipment,technologies,staff - and sometimes the very plants - of milk companies.

Columbia had the team - and very nearby it had the equipment, to start saving millions of lives, way back in 1941.

But it blew it - it morally blew it.

Columbia developed three world-shaking ideas on its campus during World War Two.

The Age of Antibiotics started there -millions of lives saved by the actions of a decorated frontline combat hero named Dawson.

With Adorno and Horkheimer's seminal text, in humble mimeographed form, the age of Postmodernity started there.

And the technology that powered the Cold War, on both sides, was started and perfected there - in that life-giving milk plant  district - perfected by a life-long pacifist named Harold Urey.

Yes, most of the uranium that blew up Hiroshima was not made by Columbia's technology.

But the instance the war was over, the competing totally inefficient plants were closed and massive gas diffusion plants were built instead using Columbia's technology, to create the tens of thousands of bombs on all sides during the Cold War.

That same deadly uranium is still around, fashioned into today's current bombs.

Thanks Columbia, 'Home of the Cold War' !

Now if you went to the Columbia campus today , would you find a plaque to Dawson and Adorno or to Urey ?

You guessed right - Adorno and Dawson are non-persons but Urey and death are honored to the hilt at Columbia.

 And in Washington.

The self-promoting Florey and Britain get all the moral glow of penicillin instead.

Columbia blew it - and it is still blowing it......

In Wrath remember Mercy

On page 162 of Gladys Hobby's "Penicillin: Meeting the Challenge" (1985) , the most through account to date of the early days of penicillin, she speaks of a daily trip she made to the SBE wards of NYC's Presbyterian Columbia Hospital, between 1940 to 1944.

Holding aloft a flask filled with a musty-smelling slimy mold, she would demonstrate its new growth before each SBE (Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis) patient,intended, as she explains, to keep their courage up as they faced an almost certain imminent death.

And to remind them that their treatment with this early penicillin might save the lives of millions of potential SBE victims after them.

As it has come to do so.

I use the word 'demonstrate' deliberately and in its original, religious, sense.

The word Monstrance (aka monstral or monstre) comes from the same Latin root for 'demonstrate' and was the solar sunburst shaped metal holder for the Blessed Host, as the Body and Blood of the Living Christ was displayed (demonstrated) before the eyes of the Faithful.

Traditionally, a modification of this public rite was preformed in private, before the sick and dying, in the visitation to them with a Blessed Host inside an elaborate variation on the humble pyx, to keep their Faith and courage up in the face of death and pain.

Fair and good, but why was Gladys Hobby, of all people, carrying around and displaying a Monstrance of a circle of emerald green mold surrounding central drops of the purest gold?

Hobby was nothing if not a faithful Presbyterian and the very last Presbyterian to carry about a Monstrance , rather than melt it down for its gold and jewels, was probably Paul of Tarsus !

Green and emerald had a deep significance to the people of the Old and New Testament that almost any visitor to the Middle East can instantly appreciate as they try to escape the 'merciless heat' of the sun.

The rare shady cool green trees were literally merciful and so emerald green was easily given a deep religious significance -  representing one side of the Janus-like Jehovah.

Janus,Jehovah and Jesus.

God was often described via three colorful gemstones: jasper, sardius and emerald.

They meant high grade jasper obviously, because their jaspar was described as clear/transparent and bright and unflawed as crystal - "brighter than a thousand suns" - and represented the awesomeness of God.

But God, Janus-like ,was awesome in two directly opposing ways that yet were successfully combined in one being (a rather Marx-like thesis/antithesis/synthesis!)

Sardius was a fiery flame like red and represented Revelations' "Lake of Fire" - the fierce thirst for justice of the Jehovah of Wrath.

But God also had an equally fierce thirst for mercy - emerald green, soothing mercy, Jesus's color.

Revelations 4.3 has God on His throne on the Day of Judgement, all jasper bright and sardius angry ( cue the thunderbolts) but, thankfully,with a circle rainbow of emerald mercy surrounding him .

Thus fulfilling the key phrase of the book of Habbakuk (Hab 3.2): "In Wrath Remember Mercy".

The Manhattan Pilot did not focus on 1A patients during World War Two, as their government wanted them to.

Instead the tiny team turned 180 degrees away to focus on the lowest of the low - the 4Fs of the 4Fs (the SBEs),  considered nothing but an expensive and futile drain on scarce medical resources in a time of Total War.

So in this Time of Total Wrath, the Dawson team's Agape Science remembered 'the least of these' with a four year long Act of Mercy.

The blue-gray-green penicillium molds (the color changed day by day as they grew) was not the only green color running through the Manhattan Pilot story. Viridans Strep, the SBE killer, is the bacteria that makes unbrushed teeth look green. More accurately, it turns red blood greenish .

SBE wards were often informal known as The Green Rooms, as a result - better than calling them 'the terminal wards' , as many people thought of them back then.

Of course, in any hospital built during the Streamlined or Art Deco era, as Presbyterian Columbia was, all rooms were green - the famous 'hospital green' or 'institutional green', a shade that was literally invented during the Art Deco/Streamlined era and became one of its key characteristics.

This shade of pale green made the rooms and corridors soothingly cool and relaxing, and - it is said - made any blood splattered on them look less alarming.

It is called 'Green Chrome' paint, short for any green paint made from chromium oxide - it was tough and resisted the corrosive effects of various bodily fluids or hospital chemicals. (It also was not a favorite food of bacteria or fungi - so it was easy to maintain as sterile .)

Yellow or gold is often thought of as the color of the penicillin story - but this is only partly true ( pure penicillin is crystal clear and even today, the antibiotic starts off in bright green fungi growths).

In any case ,yellow was also the color of Yellowcake uranium and the Manhattan Project - the evil counterpart to the Manhattan Pilot - and the other big scientific venture coming out of Columbia University between 1940-1945.

More on the yellow connection later.

Right now, anyone of us who has had their life or that of someone in their family saved thanks to penicillin or other antibiotics should simply feel touched by this act of mercy during a horrible,horrible war.

And remember Gladys Hobby, the world's most unlikely Monstrance carrier....

Sunday, July 18, 2010

MO goes PO: Death or Life: America picks death

"In the 'soldiers/guns/cities/Canada/we did not make this up' department, is this bizarre but true story from America."

After you read the above blog post, reflect upon this:

Wasn't it old Ronnie Reagan who said the scariest thing you could ever hear is someone saying:

"Hi,I am from the federal government and I am here to honor you" ???

Trust the fed bureaucrats to honor Columbia University for the totally wrong wartime project - and trust Columbia University to go along with the gag....

The truth was that wartime Columbia University and Manhattan island were a Janus-like combo - part killer/ part livesaver --- a pity that only the killer side has been honored to date....

Friday, July 16, 2010

tale of TWO firsts

If you read most accounts of the early days of penicillin, they will say:

"Yes, we must admit that it appears that Dr Martin Henry Dawson gave a needle of penicillin-the-antibiotic to Aaron Alston, an SBE sufferer, in New York City on October 16th 1940 and he died. And then Dr Dawson died."

That safely out of the way, they move onto their chosen hero of the penicillin saga.

For once, I am not jesting - I can point you to many influential examples that say basically just that.

Much later ,some accounts of the penicillin saga say :

 "Dr Dawson gave the first ever needle of systemic
 penicillin to Charlie Aronson , an SBE sufferer, on October 16th 1940 in New York City and Charlie survived not just one but two bouts of SBE thanks to

 Charlie was alive and well the last time he was checked up upon, in early 1946.
And we know most of this thanks to a article by Dr Dawson written in early 1945, so Dr Dawson didn't seem to die so quickly after all."

What gives?

 Is this glass half full or or half empty ?

 Or are Charlie and Aaron the one and the same patient ?

The answer is that few authors resort to guns to murder anyone these days when they can destroy someone so much quicker and safer by "editing".

The fact is both men were treated with penicillin within minutes of each other on that same date and their fates were just as these authors indicated.

But editing out/editing down an entire event "for brevity", allows a writer to paint Dawson as a winner or loser, depending on what part of the story they choose not to tell.

I intend to tell the whole story warts and all- so judge me accordingly.

Charlie and Aaron will both be in my account.

(However while I can't prove it, I do tend to think that Charlie got the first dose, if only a two minutes before Aaron.

I base this on how I think that detractors in science dispute work to weaken any triumph that is not their's.  And how Dawson, Meyer ,Hobby & Chaffee tried to forestall them.)

More on this point later...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Images of Martin Henry Dawson

There aren't any on the web.

At least not identified as such.

But he is there, buried inside a group shot.

Here are a few - quality varies from poor to acceptable, but "better than not"... so enjoy !


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Healing the Heartless

Seventy Five Million people - at least - had their lives greatly shortened by the events of World War Two.

Died. Dead. If not during the war itself, then not long after.

Set against that toll (the worst ever disaster in human history) the act of extending, for a few years, the lives of about 25 civilians with a physical heart disease may not stack up for much.

Connecting the two - vast military forces raging overseas with a small quiet medical affair that could have just as easily happened in peacetime - may seem impossible.

But I think there is a strong connector and it is that the curing those physical heart cases was dependent on first healing some Home Front civilians of a metaphorical heart disease far more deadly than Endocarditis : Scientific Heartlessness/ Scientific SansCoeur.

Calling upon Science and Nature to justify a lack of compassion for those not among your own kind was Modernity's abiding moral failing.

It was displayed not just during modern warfare or in everything that Hitler ever did - it was habitual, in varying degrees, among most all of us back then.

Only Time will tell us what abiding moral failings of this postmodernist/quantum/commensal age will engender - I am sure that Heartlessness will be chief among them.

But hopefully we will no longer boast about our heartlessness as being based on the best scientific discoveries from Nature.

The decline of Modernity came not from any external assaults, rather it rotted from within, from among its strongest supporters, the Scientist.

This happened when a few, then some, and finally many,  saw that Nature did not favour heartlessness at all but rather the opposite, and translated that new knowledge into concrete human behavior : they changed their day-to-day ethics accordingly.

It wasn't a rapid or smooth process nor has it ended yet but it had to start somewhere and Dawson's story is as close to the beginnings as I have been able to find  AND  it had consequences that we have all felt personally - so it it is an excellent place to start recalling when Mo went Po, if only because the first person cured of the metaphorical heart disease was Dr Dawson himself. 

Not that he was heartless by any means anytime in his life, but he was a proud member of a relatively new profession, that of the Clinical Investigator, which had the potential for exposing all the ambiguities of Modernity's reforming spirit.

Only when Dawson started questioning the disinterested objectivity he always had upheld so strongly, was he himself on the road away from Mo and heading for Po.....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Skyscraper Genetics;Sidewalker Genetics

The age old story of the world , the insiders trying to keep the outsiders out, is brought to a permanent boil in New York City.

The verticality of the skyscraper is a truly fitting and 'deep' metaphor for Modernity : it represents Modernity's need to categorize everyone and everything into a vertical hierarchy of increasing (imagined) 'fitness' and worth.

The assumption is that your worth depends on your inherited genetics which are fixed and change only at the place of glaciers - genetics you inherit strictly from your parents - no miscegenation between species or races here !

By contrast the H in HGT (Horizontal Genetic Transfer), is a fitting symbol for this new, Quantum-Postmodern- Commensal Age.

It merely institutionalizes the reality of global commensality that since we have to exist together cheek to jowl on this Planet,diners at a common table, we might as well resolve to make the best of it and make use of the best of each other's ideas.

In fact, our lives probably depend on us doing so.

So the horizontality of a modern library with its branches stocks of books shared all over the city and all of it part of a continent or world wide system of inter-library loans best represents in human terms what HGT is to the microbe world.

Once named by very early explorers as a natural Arcadia, New York under Dewitt Clinton became the ultimate Synthetic Arcadia, with his rigid and orderly grid system of streets and avenues and buildings demanding that Nature yield to the Will of Man.

But the dirty, noisy,vibrant,disorderly, messy immigrant-burdened sidewalks -where two strangers' eyes can meet and romance bloom; those sidewalks,and those unruly sidewalkers, they,they are Nature's Revenge !

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's the worst possible heart disease?

Most would probably have an opinion as to the worst possible heart disease. 

Maybe only a theologian would spontaneously say it was SANSCOEUR.

But that is what Mo goes Po suggests as the world's most potent heart condition....

(The image underneath the title in that blog by the way is of Martin Henry Dawson.... circa about 1938)

That lowdown achin' old heart disease

This is the story of a heart disease, a metaphorical heart disease, the worst disease our world has ever seen and - hopefully - will ever see ; but one where the nominal 'patients' ended up healing the doctors.

It is also part of the perennial story of New York City , the battle between the Skyscrapers and the Sidewalkers, as old as the city itself.

It is the story of a medical pariah, a promising doctor who to most of his colleagues seemed to have gone off the rails somewhere and done about the worst thing a medical scientist could ever do, which is to 'go native'.

 A doctor who started thinking and acting less like a Disinterested Scientist and more like he was at one with his erstwhile 'clinicial material'...

Much of the climax of this story takes place in north western Harlem, over a small area of about eighty acres.

And like all the best eighty acres, it also had a mule.  His name : Martin Henry Dawson.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Modernity: Last page in Long Book

Modernity was usually felt to be the first page in a book not yet fully written , the gateway to "The World of Tomorrow".

But it could be argued it better represents the very last page of a very, very long book more than 3000 years old.

Definition time: I consider Modernity to be a mode of thought, not a time period.

Yes, it predominated in the period 1880-1980, but it had strength before (1840-1880) and after (1980 - 2020 ??).

It shared the hundred years between 1880-1980 with Pre-Modernity and Post-Modernity but towered well over them in its undisputed hegemony.

It held, along with the ancient Greek scientists (& Newton) the idea that both macro and micro reality consisted of a solid, resilient material that acted and felt rather like metal or rock or wood or a living body.

In objects like the human body, it consisted of a constantly and smoothly curving unbroken structure - made up (perhaps) of tiny granular objects ( atoms) that were as solid and as resilient as the entire body itself and were packed so closely together as to appear and act as if they were all one big solid object.

Hardened cement, solid but yet visibly made of tiny grains all stuck together is as good a visual representative of this vision of ultimate reality as any we commonly see.

There was no "inside detailing" to these atoms and their outer edges were clearcut and definite.

Simple and unchanging (by no coincidence,rather like the definition Modernists held of bacteria), these micro objects were complied into sub-assemblies which became assemblies and then systems - from atoms to molecules to all the way up to human beings
or planets.

Macro Reality - when they thought it was working - was a vast Lego or Meccano Set, an additive form of complexity, in strict hierarchical order.

When it wasn't working, Macro Reality was disordered and "dirt" resulted : atoms out of place.

If you were born in 1880 and completed your education before Queen Victoria died you would only have read, later in life, in the newspapers about changes proposed by some scientists to this way of looking at the world but you won't have and couldn't have accepted those changes, deep down in your bones.

You were simply too old but unfortunately, not quite old enough:
you would have been 53 when Hitler came to power, 60 in 1940, 65 in 1945.

In whatever you did (as long as you were a professional class male) you would have been at the top of your profession  (the boss) and would have run the world, along with other men roughly your same age and with roughly the same kind of scientific education, throughout World War Two and the ten year lead-up to it.

Quantum science was happening during the Modern Era but was not a part of it, in its day to day workings.

Newton still ruled all through the Modern Era.

Don't believe me?

Millions of parents and their kids believed in this view of ultimate Reality:
check out when the sales of Meccano sets,Erector kits,Tinkertoy and their ilk first became popular and when those sales suddenly died, and you can mark the timeline of Modernity at its peak and at its decline...

"Teachable" doesn't always mean "Realistic"

"Publication Bias" is a common problem in Science.

It can take many forms and is generated by many people : so the guilt can be nicely spread about.

Peer Review is such an honored  precept in Science, it must come as a shock to many laypeople to learn that almost nobody likes a scientist who actually re-runs the protocol reported in one lab's published paper, to see it the results stand up in their own lab - the supposed point of peer review.

In fact, a paper that merely confirms the earlier results is not welcomed by journal editors, journal readers or your fellow scientists on things like tenure committees.

"Perhaps.... if you could confirm it with some new additional research... it might be acceptable."

But, on the other hand, if you are well known and the lead author of the original lab is also well known and you fail to confirm their results and even become so bold as to hint it because their hypothesis is all wrong to begin with, you will likely get published.

 Because in Science as elsewhere in life, controversy sells newspapers - and journals.

Even worse is for a scientist to come up with a hypothesis and then cheerfully report that it didn't pan out - don't expect a rush of editors eager to publish you.

You might think Science would welcome your honesty - no point in issuing grant money and wasting six months of ten people's lives, merely to re-discover what you already found out - "the idea is going no where - at least in the form my lab put upon it."

This changing a bit when it comes to drug trial results.

 If false, and allowed to stand, they could cause many to die.

 Editors are even more wary these days if the study is funded by drug companies.

Now medical journals want all results (good ,bad or inconclusive) placed in a public database created the moment the project is started - even if only the highlights are published.

No more cherry picking the best results for your hypothesis.


Now a similar sort of bias emerges whenever scientists must teach students (or politicians/generals/executives).

The paymasters (parents, taxpayers, prime ministers) want  definite simple answers - results, in other words --- not real world scientific caution.

Scientists want to eat.

So one can just imagine Newton cheerfuly telling these various paymasters in his day that "my new theory can predict the path of the nearby planets highly accurately."

Wow, they say.

No point in telling the paymasters that high accuracy with regard to the paths of planets is a totally unnecessary luxury - the planets are not about to sneak up on us and crash into Earth.

And also no sense in admitting that your new laws won't do much for calculating the paths of asteroids, which have in the past and will against someday, crash into us with terrible results.

(They are too many,too small, too dark and too easily affected by larger objects passing through, to be easily tamed by the level of technology we had for the effort in Newton's day - or even today.)

This sort of thinking results in students from junior high to undergraduate level only being thoroughly taught those parts of Reality that science has managed to tame/explain/predict in nice simple clearcut patterns.

Useless it may be to predict the paths of planets, but Science can do it and so science teachers will teach it and expect students to replicate it.

Predict the weather can't be done reliably and so it its rushed through, ignored, push aside.

Teachers always claim - but I don't believe them - that they only teach experiments that work because it is too hard to evaluate results from students working on experiments that we know will produce inconclusive ,rather than clearcut, results.

The pattern proceeds over hundreds of fronts over dozens of years - the average middle class person with a degree is subtly indoctrinated in the the idea that Science has ,or is soon about to, discover and explain just about everything.

In others words, they become imbibed with the tenets of Modernity from schoolteachers who would otherwise claim they couldn't ID Modernity in a lineup of cons.

But when that callow young science undergraduate is placed in the gunnery room of some World War II battleship (for whatever navy) during a real exchange of broadsides, he is likely to realize, far far too late, that Newton and Science never did solve the multi-body mechanics equations that govern most of the real world.

Imagine trying to fire a one ton shell at a 40,000 ton ship, a fifth of a mile long, that is twenty miles away in the dark, zigzagging through rough seas at 20 knots- and randomly pitching up and down as well as deliberately zigzagging from side to side.

Your ship is doing all this as well - trying just to avoid being hit.

Your only job is to aim that shell so when it arrives a minute or two later, it hits the other ship - and hits in a place where the armour isn't too thick .

The waves can't push the ship about so that its sides are too sharply angled at the moment of impact so the shell slides off it harmlessly - nor can the ship be so low in the water because of wave action that your  shell sails harmlessly through the ship's crowsnest.

But you have no idea of what the wave action is twenty miles away and two minutes into the future.

You are too busy discovering that each shell is polished slightly differently and each propellant bag load has slightly different energy output.

The big gun barrel fires slightly different as it warms up and wears out gradually.

The rangefinder gives different results in cold versus hot weather as metal expands or contacts.

Each shell will have a different path as a result of all these variables.

And don't get me started on the effects on the shell's path caused by the varying wind and air temperature over a path through the atmosphere twenty miles long.

On and on and on it goes.

The highest tech aspect of World War Two was not the bombsights in bombers, code-breaking, nuclear fission - it was in the range-finding units of big battleships.

Despite all this scientific effort, training of crew, expensive state of the art computers, a ship's safest course when it came under fire was to deliberately steer towards the last shell splash - so inaccurate was long range gunnery, it was a given no shell fell in the same place twice, even when that was the gun crew's intention !

Day to day Newtonian/slide rule mechanics, the science that most people are still comfortably with, gives approximately accurate results under favourable conditions.

This comes as no surprise to scientists as experimenters , but as teachers, they lulled generations of citizens into thinking science could work as well with real world problems as it appeared to do in the undergraduate lab.

Science sang for its supper - and sang a false tune.

So be very suspicious of any school course where  you come out of it  'knowing more' than you did coming in - for a good instructor teaches you humility, not hubris...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

World War Two: a global referendum on Modernity

If WWII was a Civil War among earthlings, a global referendum on the value of Modernity taken to its logical extreme, how did the vote go ?

I think an overwhelming majority of the world voted for Modernity.

But many had started having a few small doubts and wanted a few correctives and adjustments.

A victory then, for Modernity.

But DOUBT is the ultimate solvent, 'The Seven Year Itch' of human thought and over time, those tiny doubts grew and grew and are growing still.

Call it a PyrrhicVictory for Modernity...

World War Two : a CIVIL war among Earth's humans

I have said that 75 years on, World War Two and its lead up is looking more and more like an internal family fight between the most modern nations in the world.

 They were united in believing that there were far too many Jewish undergraduates in university but differed over the solution: while many countries supported the idea of informal hidden quotas, only a few nations felt that all current Jewish students should be expelled and even fewer felt that Jewish undergraduates should be taken out and gassed to death.

Substitute Negroes, homosexuals, defective newborns ,morons in mental homes, Polacks and other immigrants and you get a similar pattern.

But I don't really mean it.

I do not really think WWII was basically a war between nations over just how far  to take the logic of Modernity with regards to those judged less worthy of civilized modern life.

Instead, I have found that history reveals that in almost every nation on the planet World War Two generated strong disagreements within its domestic population over how to react to the varing propositions that Hitler,Tojo,Stalin, FDR and Churchill were making as to the reasons for joining their side of the fight.

Many people back then had far more in common with various peoples in many other nations than they did with their own fellow nationals .

WWII created transnational collections of individual consciences (& individual responses) that spanned the globe - from 100% pro-Hitler to 100% anti-Hitler and everything in between.

Today's (and certainly tomorrow's) historians are going to have to start studying the individual responses to the rise of Hitler and let the crude blunt instrument of a nation's overall response to Hitler to languish for a while...

"Triumph of the Wild: World War Two"

World War Two is usually described as the triumph of one kind of human will over another kind of human will .

Victory is said to have come to the Allies because the minds/rationality/willpower of the free scientists of the democracies were much smarter than the fanatically-willed minds of the soldiers and scientists of Germany and Japan.

This despite the fact that almost everyone agrees that the Axis were the far tougher soldiers: scientific willpower trumped military willpower.

But the military staff of all the combatant nations found that their war plans rarely worked anywhere near as well as they were expected  ----the fog of war had never seemed thicker.

Unexpectedly, their plans' biggest failings were usually against the forces of nature rather than against the forces of man:

The constant ability of unexpected bad weather to delay offensives and the power of national harvest failures to push leaders into new, ever more foolish, invasions schemes.

The overwhelming consequences of rugged geography ,and vast distances in general, on logistical efforts.

The perpetual shortages of natural materials and energy (including- unexpectedly for modernists - shortages in human energy !)

The failures of man-made/synthetic substitutes to remedy Nature's shortfalls.

The inaccuracy of workmanlike Newtonian mechanics ,at distances longer than a Nelson broadside , the list goes on and on.

The world's biggest and most modern nations went into World War Two knowing it would be a very tough war - but were united, at least, in believing their only really tough opponents would be groups of other humans.

This is to say, they were all Modernists to the core and hence all students - perhaps unknowingly - of Sir Charles Lyell.

Nature was supposed to have been tamed within reasonable limits and only humans could hold up other humans in their goals.

But few Germans today are willing to rate Stalin's army as being a greater enemy than Russian winter and Russian mud and the sheer Russian expanse.

Even fewer of today's airforce staff officers still believe that German fighters and ack-ack
guns were the prime reason why massive numbers of Allied bombers failed to  permanently knock out any German power plants or oil refineries.

In a world war that ended up being as much being 'against the world' as being 'conducted all over the world', Modernity took a blow it never fully recovered from: "Wild Trumps Will, every time".

Nature bats last... but it bats long and it bats hard....

the coalition of the Un-willing

On the afternoon of September 2st 1939, it seemed as if the global coalition of those nations willing to face down Hitler numbered exactly "zero".

(Poland had no moral choice to make - it was simply invaded.)

But Britain and France still had sizable numbers of their elite willing to listen to Italy's plea for a conference to settle this dispute between neighbours 'honorably' - as was done at earlier Munich.

So World War II was by no means a certainty that afternoon.

Only at 1130 pm that night, during a tremendous thunderstorm, when the British Cabinet voted to go to war with Germany next morning, unless it ceased its war against Poland, did the 'world war' portion of the localized German-Polish war really begin.

As the 'Greatest Generation ever' basks in the glow of praise for doing its bit in 'the Best War ever'/ 'the last Good war' , it is worth recalling the long,long timeline of just when (or even if) each nation on earth decided to join the coalition of the willing against Hitler  - and whether or not they followed these bold words up, by actually sending their citizens into combat.

Some waited the full twelve years from 1933 to 1945 to oppose Herr Hitler (and only verbally at that) and some never did.

The very first combatant nation was Germany , on August 31 1939. The last new combatant was the USSR, going to war against Japan on August 8th 1945.

In between those six years, the world's nations shifted their feet from side to side to side, going from neutrality to supporting one side but remaining neutral, to joining them formally as an ally to changing sides or back again to neutrality and just about everything in between.

Many only joined the war against Hitler in the Spring of 1945, with Germany defeated and in fear they would be denied a seat in the proposed postwar United Nations organization, unless they at least declared war on Hitler before Berlin surrendered.

At any one time, a nation's formal decision about wartime status and its more informal 'leanings' to one side or other (or the intensity of its commitment to its allies) were usually opposed by a good sum of its citizens as 'going too far' or 'not far enough'.

Really 'the coalition of those willing to oppose Hitler' was in the end made of of individuals, not nations.

They joined it one at a time and varied day by day in the intensity of their commitment against Hitler's ideals.

Looking for the opponents to Hitlerism at the level of 'the nation' reveals that all nations on earth were immorally slow to take him on and is a crude measure of the long road to defeating the ideas of Hitler as well as just his military forces.

Individuals both did much,much better than the various nations - and much,much worse...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Does 'Mo goes Po' mean 'MOdernity goes POstal?'

A couple of friends, who know my sense of humour, asked me if "MO goes PO" stood for MOdernity goes POstal.

It does not, although I do think Modernity did go postal between 1939 and 1945 - its just that Modernity could have gone postal for a while and then made a complete recovery.

But it didn't.

So the bigger story is how Modernity plunged, over six years, from its Apogee at the New York World's Fair's visions of the World of Tomorrow all the way down to to its Nadir at Auschwitz.

It never recovered and it was forced to see its era very slowly and very quietly fade away.

(Significantly, the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair was also the time and place for the first ever fan convention for Sci Fi literature - at that time it was the literature that was the most unquestioningly Modern.

I doubt you could say that of most Sci Fi stories, post 1946.)

It is a lot to ask of the six short years from September 2nd 1939 to September 2nd 1945 ; can I make my case it actually happened in that a brief a time period?

I think so - the emotional change inside our hearts happened during the war, even if the actions that followed had to wait for peacetime conditions to be allowed to come forward.

If my project ever get produced as a play,film or musical, those six years will have to get packed into three hours - at the most - compressing the experience of the Mo-to-Po Revolution into an even tighter time experience.

Martin Henry Dawson
I think my 15 scenes plus one afterword will do a good job of compressing those six years into a fulfilling dramatical experience, at least as seen from the point of view of Martin Henry Dawson's tiny team in the lab on Floor G ....

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Personal animosities at Columbia Eye Institute pushed Meyer into Dawson's arms on penicillin?

Blepharitis , a chronic inflammation of the eyelids, remains one of the world's most common eye problems.

Much of the time it is caused by staph bacteria and at the start of world war two, staph was one of the few common pathogen bacteria not killed by the various sulfa drugs - the 'antibiotics' of the day.

This was a big problem for the military of all the combatant nations of that war.

They regarded aviation as the alpha and the omega of modern warfare and so gave inordinate attention to the brand new field of "aviation medicine".

One only has to recall the moral panic the Allies fell into on mere rumours that the Germans had discovered the Viagra of aviation - a cortisone that let their pilots fly higher faster longer, well you get the picture.

Meyer had a consultancy with Schering Corp America - an German-owned company - involving ,among other things, attempts to create stable esters of penicillin.

Fears that Schering's work on cortisone was at the behest of the Nazis, ( it was not) rendered Schering totally suspect in the eyes of British and American intelligence circles.

Anyone connected with Schering - like Karl Meyer and his penicillin efforts - went into a little black book of "no-nos".

Aircrews and Blepharitis

An existing, generally intractable, case of blepharitis kept a lot of potential air crews out of the various air forces right at the recruiting office - that was problem A.

Problem B was that a lot of crews seemed to get blepharitis,  either after they had been through training or while out on active service .

This was perhaps due to the strain of operating in the air of five miles up, behind an oxygen mask for hours.

It doesn't directly worsen your vision but it gives you blurry eyes which comes much to the same thing.

It also needlessly worried aircrews, who feared it meant worse things than it did.

Not just pilots or gunners are hit by its effects - engineers, navigation officers and bomb setters all had to look at lots of crucial numbers on lots of dials in very dim light - one pair of blurred eyes at the wrong moment could be terminal for the entire plane and crew.

Karl Meyer ,as a German Jewish emigre, had an easier relationship with Dr Ludwig Von Sallmann, who also was in exile --- from his native Austria because his wive was Jewish.

But even Sallmann only seemed to want to put Meyer's semi-purified penicillin into animals and then didn't publish anything on the results till a few years later (in 1943 - at least 2 years after the first experiments).

Typically of many,many doctors, he published freely on his early work with penicillin only after Baby Patty Malone made penicillin world famous, safe and respectable.

At least Dr Phillips Thygeson did put the crude penicillin into the eyes of 8 patients with chronic blepharitis caused by (sulfa-resistant) staph bacteria, between the late Fall of 1940 and the early Spring of 1941, with some very good results.

But he refused to publish on this success (adding his name to Fleming and Paine et al in England who also refused to publish their spectacular early successes with crude penicillin and eye diseases.)

The history of penicillin might have been much different if these doctors had crowed just a little.

Thygeson finally published on bleparitis and penicillin - in 1945 - noting its key military importance !

I think an oral history interview with Thygeson late in life suggests what happened:
I don't think he could stand Meyer much.

He accused him of being a constant paranoid about his work--- and having a gutteral accent that no student could understand.He said nothing about Sallmann's accent - though Sallmann had arrived in America about 8 years after Meyer.

Now a young student had heard all of these stories, feared dealing with Meyer but found him soft spoken and kind and stuck with him throughout his career long enough to write his  affectionate obit - so opinions clearly differed on Meyer's manner and personality.

Dawson hung in with him for almost 10 years, so he couldn't have been impossible to work with.

In fact, Meyer gradually transferred himself from the eye clinic to the internal medicine department where Dawson worked.

Thygeson chose not to help out Meyer, Dawson or the fate of penicillin by publishing in an area sure to advance penicillin's importance in the eyes of the military-oriented OSRD of Vannevar Bush.

Instead he stuck to publishing on his results with sulfa drugs - these were totally pure, came via the highly conventional route of a commercial drug company - and didn't work and had potential toxic side effects.

But they didn't come from the home brew lab of Karl Meyer and that might have been a big point in their favour...