Sunday, August 15, 2010

The things they buried...

I know, I know, a shameless knock-off from Tim O'Brien's classic.

What I am about to compare is the contrasting ways Fleming and Florey chose to deal with the more amateurish and stochastic areas of their involvement in the Penicillin Saga.

Fleming's discovery of penicillin was not - Horrors ! The Shame of it ! - peer-reviewed funded.

It was an accident and he wasn't being paid to discover or develop it.

 But he made the most of that fact and in fact delighted in it.

He preserved the famous accidental Petri Dish so that all can still see it in the British Museum, 82 years later. He saved a bit of the accidental mold, sent its children out to any that asked.

 Hundreds of collections worldwide still keep its great-grandchildren going and growing.

He kept his sparse notebooks for the entire period 1928-1945 dealing with his steady work on penicillin - not bold or visionary work sadly - but he still kept proof of just how little he did do -and revealed it for all to see, without shame.

He and his institution (St Mary's Hospital) positively delight in exposing and preserving just how amateurish his penicillin work was -- there is a museum dedicated to that amateurishness and the sheer unlikely stochastic-ness of his discovery.

Unauthorized but sympathetic biographers of Florey's work with penicillin also delight in revealing the utterly amateurishness of Florey's extraction equipment, assembled as it was from old bathtubs, coal hoppers, pie tins etc etc - Rube Goldberg on Acid.

Not Florey though: no, no, never.

He always (mis) presented his team as having a much more sophisticated operation than what even a well-equipped teaching hospital's Lab Service could ever put together.

 He even told anyone foolish enough to ask that only his Oxford-produced penicillin or that produced by Big Pharma was safe to put into patients .

And that any teaching hospital lab's penicillin was bound to be unsafe .

All this despite the fact that Florey was not , in the conventional sense, a clinically-oriented medical doctor with patients and hence in a position to properly judge patient safety.

Instead he was a medical researcher working in a lab on basic science.

Part of this animus against teaching hospitals was because Florey hated patient-oriented doctors with a passion, but mostly it was because he wanted to keep his part in the penicillin Saga on the Dignified/peer-reviewed funded/team side rather than the heroic individual/amateur/unfunded side of the story.

But in fact his penicillin plant or that of any drug company, from 1940 till about mid 1944, was as purely amateurish as those run by individuals out of a corner of a hospital lab - perhaps differing only in being a tiny bit bigger.

But the minute he heard that Pfizer was producing more NATURAL penicillin in 5 minutes than his lab had produced in 5 years,Florey shut down his penicillin plant and had all his Rube Goldberg extraction equipment torn up and then buried in a backyard rubbish heap.

After his death,Norman Heatley built some replicas for museum use.

 But generally Florey supporters have explained this by saying that  Florey was forced to use amateur methods at first, until he assembled a vast Anglo-American joint effort involving governments, universities, corporations and the military, all working together, to bring us high tech penicillin - Big Science at its best.

Academics just love this myth, the myth that says if the taxpayer just gives science lots of money and then stays out of the way, they will pull rabbits out of hats every time.

The public loves the other myth - that kindly old Fleming discovered penicillin just messing about and gave it to the world without charge ------and that it was a piece of cake to get it into mass production.

Neither myth is totally untrue but both only give a part of the story.

Hopefully my effort will give a fair hearing to both Fleming and Florey but include the rest of the penicillin Story as yet unheard.....

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