Thursday, August 5, 2010

Jack Frost Dark saved more lives ....

... than Al-Qaida will ever spend.

If you live in the Greater New York area, you don't need to be told that the Jack Frost brand of dark brown sugar, made in Yonkers, is good stuff.

Damn good stuff.

Your doctor might not agree though - so here is an argument that should appeal to their
medical 'sense of being': did they know that Jack Frost Dark led to the development of the greatest life-saver the world has ever known??!

I know, I know, I also said this about Vegamite, but both stories happen to be true.

Alexander Fleming got a lot of criticism over his use of ox heart medium to grow the first penicillin.

This abuse came from the first generation of penicillin authors -all sycophants of Howard Florey and all modernist to the core.

Ox heart medium is rich and complex and undefined - ie we don't know what all is in it or in what percentages.

As a result, chemists ( the modernist archetype ) hate it with a passion.

They prefer something like the all synthetic Czapek-Dox 'defined' medium - a bland mixture of water and salts you could just see Jeremy Bentham urging the British government to use to feed prisoners ,because it meant that they would remain alive while ensuring that they got no illict enjoyment from their food.

Unfortunately, the penicillium mold hates the stuff as much as prisoners do - it prefers the rich murk of the ox heart stew.

Fleming grew his mold juice in 4 to 5 days in ox heart stew while the chemists led by Raistrick took 15-20 days to get their mold juice on the sparse Quaker-approved diet.

(Interestingly, Fleming started his penicillium on a synthetic medium (Sabouraud's). He did know about them and used them ,despite what his hostile biographer, Ronald Hare, says.

But he found pre-digested extracts of spoiled meat made the penicillium produce faster AND was much much cheaper to buy. Engineers would approve on both counts - though chemists won't.)

Florey, being a chemist-manque, dismissed the ox heart brew and went for some Czapek-Dox synthetic purity instead. But it was so slooooow, and so he "modified" it.

In fact he modified it right back to Fleming's brew, more or less: he added brewer's yeast  (the cast-offs from brewing beer - rich, dirty, complex, undefined, cheap.)

Vegamite is basically brewer's yeast.

Florey retained the concept of his all important 'purity' (in his own mind ,at least) while he got the speed of faster production from this dirty stew.

Coghill, out in Peoria at the NRRL, was a chemist, but a chemist-out-of-water, in charge of a biologically-oriented Fermentation Station.

He devoted much time and effort to try to first purify and then synthesise penicillin - when that failed, he fell back to raving about the use of corn steep liquors to speed production times and increase penicillin output.

Corn steep is another industry cast-off, the stuff left over after all the pure starch has been removed from corn.

It is complex, undefined, dirty and cheap.

Coghill and Merck and many others spent the entire war, trying to figure out what was the one ingredient in corn steep liquor that gave the much better results they got with it.

They planned to synthesis that one ingredient and then dump the corn steep like a used condom.

Others, like the Dawson team, just took the dirty complex stuff as a 'black box' and a gift - they wanted penicillin for patients ,not penicillin for academic papers and academic acclaim.

In the end, it was dozens of things in the corn steep or the dirty sugar that the mold loved - we still use this stuff today - as 'undefined' as ever.

Chalk one up for the post modernist way of thought.

Adorno, the German philosopher working on the Columbia campus in 1941 could explain (and did explain) this Modernist preference for inefficient and expensive defined growth mediums over cheap and efficient but undefined growth mediums.

(Or for that matter, the equally odd Modernist obsession of favoring toxic but defined drugs over drugs that are undefined but perfectly non-toxic. As a patient, I know which one I would prefer to have coursing through my veins !)

In his 1944 "DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT", published at Columbia, (the seminal work that ushered in the post modernist era), he said that the Enlightenment's promise to lead us out of the darkness of ignorance was really an exaggerated fear of the unknown.

Not a sensible fear of the dangerous but an a priori fear of anything unknown, even ahead of things that are dangerous but known.

For penicillin read Dangerous= toxic.

Let us turn, finally, from Adorno to Meyer and Hobby and Chaffee and Dawson.

In 1942, they told the world of their secret food for their pilot penicillin plant: Jack Frost Dark.

Many others, Merck Inc among them, took up their idea, seeking the dirtiest, darkest, cheapest substitute they could find in their own local area --- if Jack Frost wasn't around.

The best brown sugar was natural or industrial brown sugar - sugar with lots of crude molasses's minerals and bio-organism waste products still in it.

It could be gotten directly from some sympathetic sugar factory chemist. Since so many industry chemists in the New York area were German or Jewish ( or both) in those days, Meyer wouldn't have found it hard to get a few hundred pound bags right off the boats from the West Indies.

It was dirt-cheap and because it was also dirty, it gave the best yield of penicillin .

You see 'defined' medium means we know exactly what the microbes like to eat, to make them produce what ever it is we want.

But using complex, un-defined ,industrial cast-off brews means we throw our hands up in the air and admit we really don't know Nature.

Instead we gave them everything and the kitchen sink and said "pick whatever you think suits you best".

I see the entire Penicillin development story 1940-1945 as a prime example and the most suitable metaphor of the shift from Modernity to Post Modernity.

So while I am making a little sport with Vegamite and Jack Frost Dark - I am also deadly serious .

 Both of these common domestic foodstuffs did not just give us greater penicillin supplies when they were so badly needed.

They also represented some of the first examples of the green post-modernist way of viewing Man's relationship to Nature's creatures as being co-equals rather than Master and Slave --- when we feed penicillium Jack Frost or Vegamite, we say " maybe you are smarter than us" .

Pass the brown sugar won't you ?

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