Thursday, September 30, 2010

for Dawson, Penicillin came with only one possible modifier: "STAT!"

I have said before that the Fall of 1918 was the life-defining moment for both Henry Dawson and Howard Florey.

In September 1918, Florey's family literally tumbled down the social scale.

Down, down, down from wealthy socially prominent Upper Mitcham - sliding quickly back down the social scale to a little cottage in the lower suburbs near the city centre (Fullarton Estates in South Adelaide) rather like the humble cottage where the family had begun its life in Adelaide only 35 years earlier.

No more big mansion, no more grand summer home, no more grand automobile, no more factory and firm, no more money for school fees - all gone in the bankruptcy following his dad's sudden death.

Like Charles Dickens never forgiving his mother from not rescuing him from the blacking factory, Howard Florey never forgave his father for bringing the family firm and name to ruin by not keeping a proper watch on his subordinate employees - the event that the family claimed led to the firm's collapse.

For Dawson,September 1918 meant he was wounded once again - even more seriously this time.

 Once more he had months in hospitals recovering and once again he had to endure the yells and smells of the young boys needlessly dying beside him from relatively minor wounds that had become grossly infected with bacteria.

This time, thousands of soldiers were also dying from the bacterial diseases that followed upon the infamous Spanish Flu.

Sometime during those months spent recovering, Dawson stopped referring to himself as a soldier planning to return to an Arts Degree, instead become someone planning to become a doctor.

He became a bacteria specialist in fact.

In 1940, both men got an unexpected opportunity to re-live (and more importantly, to re-do and un-do ) those traumatic events.

Florey turned his Department's entire building at Oxford University into what he called the Dunn "PENICILLIN FACTORY", run by Florey like a factory-operating Victorian paterfamilas, just as his own father had done in the family's halcyon days before the firm became a publicly traded company.

Woe to any member of the Florey family firm at the Dunn, like Norman Heatley, who dared even think of leaving the Dunn factory if Florey didn't want him to.

Leonard Bickel recounts this incident in his "Rise Up to Life" biography of Florey and when I first read it six years ago, I thought how feudal it all sounded - like the way minor Nova Scotia lumber
barons still treat their employees in backwoods communities where their mill is the only source of work.

About the only thing missing were the annual Florey 'factory family' picnics.

For Dawson, he turned his tiny lab, together with the nearby corridor and ward, into what I call his own "MANHATTAN 
CLEARING # 7" , a sort of civilian casualty clearing post or station rather like the many that Dawson had served in or suffered in during the Great War.

(His lab was was on the Floor G at the Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, and G is the seventh letter of the alphabet. As he had also started his medical career in 1915, as a private
(orderly) in the Canadian #7 Stationary Hospital (organized by Dalhousie University's Medical School) - I gave his effort this particular name.)

Unlike a stationary or base hospital much of the time, a Casualty Clearing Station really operates at only one tempo ---- STAT.

This medical term means 'as fast as possible', 'immediately', 'its a clinical life-threatening emergency', all words that aptly describes the type of patients a CCS or CCP got after earlier medical posts sorted out the less wounded.

Florey and Chain openly admit they crafted their penicillin project to be a broad long term investigation on the entire topic of microbial antagonism -  designed to bring in lots of work for staff and lots of grants for equipment -- to help make the Dunn into a world class research institution.

This they achieved - penicillin was only one of hundreds of antibiotics they investigated in WWII.

By contrast, Dawson strictly focused, from day one, on saving as many Juvenis Interruptus (SBE) patients as possible, as quick as possible, with penicillin.

STAT was his byword in all things penicillin and in just five weeks he had grown, concentrated, tested and now was saving lives with a substance about almost nothing was known - a record probably no other doctor has excelled.

He was too old and too 'previously wounded' to end up again the the combat front lines, but he was 'still on the job', still saving young lives anyway he could.....

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