Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mae Smith ; the real life DOCTOR MOM that gave us penicillin

Readers sometimes asked me if DOCTOR MOM was a real person.

I usually say "No, Dawson was trying to reach all the Doctor Moms in America , via his success in preventing all the deaths and all the worries caused by childhood Rheumatic Fever."

But I have reflected and maybe my readers are right - yes, there was was one specific Doctor Mom that Dawson reached - perhaps, indeed, only one that he reached.

But one can be more than enough.

Her real name was Mae Smith, though she is sometimes known as Mrs John l Smith or ,more accurately, as Mary Louise Smith.

MAE SMITH in 1954
Her husband owned 25% of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and after his death, she held those shares.

More books have been written on these , the original "Boys of Summer", than any other team.

Many people seem to rate the day the team left Brooklyn as more significant in the decline of America than Watergate or Viet Nam.

The other Mary Louise Smith is also very important in this story : she was the Smiths' daughter.

John L grew up in a small seaport in Connecticut and he loved to sail more than almost anything and he loved his cottage in his old home town.

One day when the family was out in the cottage, far from big cities and big city high tech hospitals, young Mary Louise said she had a stiff neck. And a headache. And a fever. And that in fact, she generally wasn't feeling very good indeed.

That put her family in a real panic.

Not as much as it did the local doctors - it was obviously Spinal Meningitis - still a deadly, every-minute-counts-disease even today with antibiotics.

By the time they got her to a big hospital, it was too late to even stabilize her - though surviving a late case of spinal meningitis can be a very mixed blessing - it often leaves you physically and mentally challenged.

An immediate (and I mean like yesterday) massive needle full of Penicillin was the best cure then , as it still is today.

Penicillin had been discovered at the time of Mary Louise II's death, but had not yet been produced, let alone mass produced.

In 1941 and 1942 and in 1943, as Dawson always naggingly reminded any and all visitors from John L.'s firm, it still was not being mass produced.

"But if it had been developed back then and if it was a staple in the black bag of even the smallest backwoods doctor, Mary Louise would be alive today."

"How many more Mary Louises would have to die needlessly before the world got enough penicillin to make a difference?"

And on and on.

John L had heard this all too many times before - he felt that Dawson simply didn't understand the technical and economic issues that prevented his firm from taking the plunge.

"What risk ", said Dawson , "are you not planning to take the company public, and to do a stock split?  This war has made you guys even richer - give something back to the fighting man - and the fighting woman."

I bet John L would go home at night, get a stiff drink and unwind at his wife, all about what a nag that Henry Dawson was -- "why he even said this and he dared say that."

I don't think John L bought Dawson's line.

But to her credit, I think Mrs John L eventually did.

I bet, late at night, just when John L was trying to get some shuteye , she would softly bring up the question of 'why couldn't the firm take a little risk for once, do something extra for the war effort?'

I think it must have rubbed off eventually, because if his firm was cautious, John L was even more so.

But between late August 1943 till March 1944, that 'stiff little man' was like a man possessed, so determined was he to get a big new, NATURAL, penicillin plant on line as soon as possible.

(This was just at the very time that the Florey team at Oxford University were semi-secretly announcing that they had totally synthesised penicillin chemically and that to continue to rely on natural production by the mold was a 'retrograde' step - so John L was betting against the received opinion.)

But they went ahead anyway: shifts of crews building around the clock, lit by Klieg Lights and posters everywhere reminding employees that this was a "Race Against Death."

 "The quicker this building is done, the quicker penicillin can go out to the wounded boys at the front."

It paid off  because by D-Day Pfizer, his firm, was producing most of the world's penicillin---and the company has never looked back.

We never did get any of that wonderful 'Refined Penicillin' out of the chappies at Oxford - but 'Brooklyn Crude' pulled us through the war anyway.

And I like to think a lot of the credit for starting Pfizer on the road to becoming the world's biggest company should go to a quiet but persistent push from  "Doc" Mae Smith.....

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