Monday, August 9, 2010

Penicillin a sidebar to WWII

One of the major differences in my account of the development of penicillin from all the others, is that I don't plan to tell the 'exciting' story of penicillin, with World War Two merely as part of the backdrop.

The fact is that during the war penicillin was never more than a sidebar to the main story, even on both sides of September 1943 when it was a major news item for about eight weeks .

Events elsewhere in the war moved penicillin forwards or backwards in importance in the eyes of war planners and nothing anyone in the entire circumscribed world of penicillin development had anything like the impact upon penicillin development that changes on the war front did.

The Eisenhower-Marshall proposed dates for a major cross-channel invasion - in summer 1942 or March 1943 (Operation Sledgehammer and Operation Roundup) - meant the US Army accepted and indeed demanded mass quantities of so-so but available medical supplies now over the possibility of better medical supplies later.

Penicillin was put on the back burner - deliberately - even though its superior qualities to sulfa was sensed early on.

The decisions to take the British tack of delaying the cross-channel invasion till May 1944 (or later), allowed US Army planners, early in 1943, to admit that the sulfa drugs had always had a lot of problems and that they were increasing in intensity.

Sulfa faced growing and widespread bacterial resistance.

In addition, powdered sulfa had proven frequently deadly when used in 'real life' sun-baked combat areas where water is usually in short supply.

This, in my view, was the result of too many combat-shy senior doctors making assumptions about battlefield conditions, when they had actually avoided the battlefield as young men during World War One .

The existing Army Surgeon was sent into retirement in the Spring of 1943 and a less cautious general (Norman Kirk) replaced him --- this has not been recognized as one of the new key factor in penicillin's improved prospects in getting up to mass production in America in late 1943.

But above all, penicillin now gained the time it needed if it was to be to eased into the military medicine cabinet.

All because of the extra year of breathing room gained for war planners because of the revised dates for the cross channel invasion from 1943 to 1944.

Martin Henry Dawson's 'SBE and penicillin' work went on regardless of the war's ebb and flow and his first success with SBE patients in the Spring of 1943 had roused John L Smith of Pfizer and others and so we might have had abundant penicillin by early 1944 ,irregardless of the new military demand for it ---we will never know.

The two penicillin stories ran in parallel ,not in series, and their climax coming together during the Spring of 1943 was, in fact, a coincidence ....

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