Thursday, July 29, 2010

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....

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