Monday, August 16, 2010

the Coghill versus John L race

In October 1943, a committee of three chemists, including the head of the US Agriculture Department division of NATURAL Fermentation, said that SYNTHETIC penicillin would a reality in six months - in April 1944.

" Bet the farm on it ! "

That was a mighty good deadline for synthetic penicillin true believers to aim for .

Because April 1944 was about the last possible date for any sort of penicillin to enter the US Army supply pipeline, be transported to the  Kansas City Kansas central army medical supply depot and then be shipped all the way back again to the East Coast and shipped
across the Atlantic to the Southern England ports, to be loaded on hospital ships bound for D-Day's beaches.

If this chemist (Robert D Coghill) had been proven right, he would have put his own Division out of business - so he had a conflict of interest about a mile wide and mile deep.

A conflict of interest between his natural chemist's fetish to achieve the complete synthesis of anything and everything and the duty he owned to his employers at the Agriculture Department.

But across town, another chemically-oriented key mover and shaker, was having a change of heart.

John L (John Lawrence Smith, the head of Pfizer) was leading one of the firms heavily involved in synthesising penicillin.

But moved by the plight of a child so like his own daughter that he had earlier lost to meningitis, he was secretly breaking the spirit of the wartime laws governing penicillin.

 Scarce amounts of penicillin that he should have been devoting to chemical synthesis John L was instead giving to doctors (under the table) to save the lives of people dying of SBE, a traditionally always-fatal form of endocarditis.

John L was also busy backstopping his own private bet that he could produce billions of units of NATURALLY-brewed by the April 1944 deadline.

He did this by having his crew work night and day under powerful Klieg Lights with posters reminding his employees that every delay would cost lives.

And he did this be accepting the second-best as more than good enough : he didn't build a brand new shiny factory like all his competitors were doing.

He took over a ice making plant (a sort of milk plant, in many senses) and adapted it quickly to produce deep tank penicillin.

Coghill and the other synthesis believers were working just as quickly, in labs all over America and Britain, fueled by lots of taxpayers' money.

But the work was not going anywhere useful.

Meanwhile Pfizer was now producing more penicillin than even their wildest estimates had allowed for and Coghill threw in the towel and, being a good bureaucrat, moved smartly to Plan B.

In April 1944, with the biological production of penicillin an outstanding success, it was suddenly deemed to no longer be a deep military secret and Coghill spilled all the details in public - claiming his division was responsible for its success.

In a sense that was true - his low level employees had made natural penicillin possible - but Coghill himself,had been busy trying to screw them in the ear by creating synthetic penicillin to make all their work irrelevant.

More importantly, if biological penicillin was now a big success, shouldn't that mean that it was MORE of a military secret than ever - not less?

Was it really only kept secret so that synthetic penicillin could gain time to trump it ?

In May 1944, Coghill ( in his other role as the erstwhile head of the Fermentation Division ) had to go inspect the fermentation tanks at Pfizer and see vials of 100,000 units of penicillin come off the Pfizer line faster than he could count.

And Coghill the Chemist had to stand there while Pfizer's Biologists went about with shit-eating grins.

A GREEN Day indeed.

Chemists and Chemistry, the Queen of the Sciences from 1840s to the 1940s, received a blow that day that they never really recovered from.

I'd give anything to be there, the day that Modernity died and Post Modernity was born....

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