Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Meyer to Durack: I started penicillin to get back at Chain

In 1981 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published "Treatment of Infective Endocarditis" ,edited by Alan L Bisno.

You can read it on the stacks at your closest medical school library.

I suppose the most cited article is the first, a "Review of  Early Experiences in Treatment of Bacterial Endocarditis, 1940-1955", by David T Durack, M.B., D Phil.

 I first read it very early in 2005.

Durack is from Australia, came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and was soon regarded as one of the best young doctors around anywhere.

He did a very through review of his chosen subject, reading through the early articles closely.

 Quickly he saw something in Dawson's and Hunter's first article on SBE patients treated by penicillin that others writing about penicillin or endocarditis hadn't fully sensed .

The disease of endocarditis was in fact the very first disease to ever be treated by an antibiotic, in the modern sense of that word.

(And even perhaps cured by an antibiotic, if you want to go out on a limb - others have - but I hesitate.)

(In any case, an event that happened on October 16th 1940 - an anniversary seventy years old this year - hence my urgency in trying to finish this book as soon as I can.)

An antibiotic in the modern or common sense meaning of that word is a medication produced by microbes that is taken internally and that can save lives.

(By contrast, antiseptics are often man-made chemicals and are applied externally and are intended as a band-aid solutions for minor cuts and bruises.)

To doctors, this means an antibiotic is a systemic medication and in the case of the original penicillin (aka Penicillin G), one administrated by needle - ie parenterally.

All this fully met by Dawson's first needle of penicillin stuck into a dying patient seventy years ago next month.

Durack managed to personally contact the three key surviving members of Dawson's team and I feel he must have asked some very probing questions.

Hunter and Hobby added interesting tidbits to the historical record, but Karl Meyer dropped the biggest bombshell.

Well it was a bombshell to me anyway, because I have this thing  (call me a stickler) for exact dates and figures.

Hobby and Hunter weren't at Columbia in early September 1940 when the decision to begin the penicillin project was taken and Dawson never publicly spoke how it came about.

Karl Meyer had never publicly spoke out about his motives either---- until 1981, when he was 83.

 I rather doubt he ever told Dawson,Chaffee or Hobby about his motives back in 1940-1945.

His personal motives hardly seemed to mount a high moral plane that might bring others in help out.

Meyer had recently been incensed, says Durack, by an article from Ernst Chain on lysozyme that slighted Meyer's earlier work (in 1933-1936) on lysozyme.

Durack quotes Meyers as saying that when he read, in August 1940, the first Oxford article in LANCET on penicillin, he determined to quickly purify penicillin, before Chain could, to pay him back.

Durack then moves on to the matters more pertinent to the actual subject of his review.

I, on the other hand, had a much greater interest in this particular matter and as a result I had available a greater variety of other information to try and make sense of this 'claim' of Meyer.

First, I doubted that Meyer in New York could have read a copy of Lancet with a cover date of August 24th, much earlier than about September 7th in peacetime, let alone when Britain was at war.

Secondly, in an 1990s oral interview with Meyer's boss in 1940, (Phillips Thygeson), Dr. Thygeson describes Meyer as a rather typical type of chemist who is (rightfully) worried that others will steal their data.

In old fashioned mystery books circa 1880 to 1940s, the 'formula' stolen from the safe was always chemical--- not math or physics or biology.

Only in chemistry is something extremely valuable to the world outside Science reducible to a page or two of formulas and symbols.

The most famous modern chemist of them all, Robert Burns Woodward, liked to make public his total synthesis of yet another impossible-to-synthesis natural material in a brief announcement of not more than a page or two.

It was as a sort of 'guy thing' type bravado, common in male chemists involved in scientific pissing contests --- but it does mean than valuable chemical results are easily stealable.

I knew Meyer and Chain had known each other since their student days in Berlin and that both were young German Jewish emigres
 very insecure about their ability to avoid a wartime internment camp --- very eager to garner citation credits, if only for the sakes of their families.

And by mischance, both were interested in the same very ,very, very narrow area of science and so bound to trip over each others' feet.

A rivalry seemed a distinct possibility.

Only one problem ---a very very big one --- Chain only published one article on lysozyme, and it didn't even get submitted to the British editors till October 28th 1940, let alone get published and find it way to America.

The Columbia penicillin effort was begun about September 9th 1940, months before this ----so could Meyer read into the future?!

I had to put Meyer's 'claim' on the mental back burner.

Then in early 2010, I read Ronald Bentley's "Leslie A (Epstein) Falk, 1915-2004, and Penicillin production at Oxford", published in the JOURNAL OF MEDICAL BIOGRAPHY, Volume 15, May 2007.

Bentley mentions that in Chain's sole article on lysozyme (of which Epstein, not Chain, is the lead author), Epstein (LE) thanks "Dr K Meyer" for lab space and assistance.

So sometime between June 10th 1940 (Epstein's return to New York) and early October 1940, Epstein was in Meyer's lab and presumably mentioned (a) how Epstein planned to dis-credit Meyer's early work and (b) that Chain was now working on penicillin and that work was very,very fruitful and would soon be published.

Alerted and incensed about (a), Meyer was also alerted about (b) so as to watch all ports for an article---- and to start attracting Dawson and Hobby to see the virtues of penicillin as a research subject.

Meyer, Chaffee and Hobby would probably have remained content to just grow enough penicillin to try and purify it.

But Dawson saw its capabilities as a possible ABF agent (anti bio-filmic agent) and the rest...... is history.

Seven flasks became seven hundred flasks, etc....

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