Saturday, September 11, 2010

the moldS in Dr Fleming's letterS

A jab - I admit - at Eric Lax's famous book title, "The Mold in Dr Florey's Coat".

Florey and his team are usually applauded for their
"selflessness" in rubbing brown penicillin liquid/powder/spores (accounts vary in the endless re-tellings) into the seams of their clothing in May 1940.

 Their supposed intention was to ensure that precious penicillin could go out into the world to grow anew and save lives everywhere, even if the beastly Nazis did succeed in conquering Britain and the spires of Oxford.

"There will always be an England ...and England's precious gift, to Humanity, Penicillin". Etc.

But what if a single bomb had destroyed their Dunn Pathology Building, killing all the entire team and all their moldy coats?

Or if the Germans invaded Britain as fast as they had overrun the rest of Europe, so that no one from the Florey team got away to what remained of the Free World?

Was there an alternative to these theatrics?

Yes there was.

Three in fact.

(1) Do what Fleming had already done for 12 years and would continue to do - sprinkle a few of his spores into a folded paper as part of an ordinary unremarked-upon letter and mail it to anyone in the world, without charge, upon request.

But because there was an invasion coming, don't just wait for requests - mail out your version of Fleming's spores to all your friends and acquaintances ----- and ask them to store them and hide those precious spores.

 Or better yet, mail them Fleming's spores, together with what you have learned so far as how to extract , semi-purify and store dry penicillin and urge them to start their own research efforts based around that work.

(2) A bit late now, but if Florey did really think that Fleming missed the boat back in 1928 by not doing the "animal protection test" why didn't Florey do it in himself in 1929, when he received the manuscript of Fleming's first paper, as an editor of the journal that paper was submitted to?

Or in 1931, when one of his subordinates at Sheffield , Dr Cecil Paine, told him of his success in external applications of liquid penicillin in curing real diseases of human patients.

Why did Florey not immediately follow this up, by seeing if liquid penicillin would work as well in curing artificial internal  diseases in lab mice by way of a needle (ie internal application), aka "the animal protection test" ?

Or why did Florey not 'do the mouse' back in 1938, when he first began his research on penicillin  -- if it was that apparent that the vital "animal protection test" had been overlooked?

Any of these times would have revealed the power of penicillin as a internal, systemic, cure - ie as the first,best, modern antibiotic, rather than just another also-ran in the overcrowded and ineffective external antiseptic market.

But in 1929,1931 or in 1938, Britain and the world would have had the peacetime resources to quickly bring penicillin to market.

But waiting two years, till the Fall of France, to 'do the mouse' and only doing it because your subordinate, Chain, jumped the gun in a fit of pique hardly shows you were concerned about the fate of a unique life-saving drug.

(3) While retelling the tale of the spores rubbed into your clothing, admit it happened because only you were (inaccurately) convinced that your team were the only scientists in the world with (a) access to these unique penicillin-producing penicillium spores and (b) had found a method of extracting and preserving dry penicillin.

This is why you kept your new penicillin success a secret, even from your prime funder, the MRC, and why you also didn't tell the scientific world of your extraction method in your August 1940 paper in Lancet.

And why as late as March-April 1941, you weren't telling any outsiders the details about your extraction methods --- not even to your many friends and colleagues overseas.

And why you only revealed your extraction methods in August 1941, after it appeared that a competitor in America had already released his own methods of extraction back in February 1941.

If Britain was About to Fall and All  Civilization About to Totter, these hardly sound like the actions of a selfless individual.

But they do sound  exactly like the lifelong characteristics of one Howard Florey - from ruthless 'take-no-prisoner' teenage tennis competitor to adult scientific 'bushwhacker'.

This is why the lazy, laidback Fleming almost got the only Nobel prize to be awarded for penicillin, instead of it going to the hardworking, ambitious, Florey and his hard-driving team.

You see ,the world had just been through the most brutal war it had ever seen, a war created by a hardworking, ambitious individual.

 So, yes, Fleming might well have been lazy on following up on penicillin - he freely admitted as much.

But lazy Fleming had also never denied anyone his unique spores - or sought any payment or even reminded them that he be mentioned in their scientific publications.

(It is worth recalling that until late 1945, those same 'Fleming Spore, albeit a little subcultured and subselected, were still supplying the world all of its therapeutic penicillin--- the many efforts to find better spores and make them workable had failed up until that date.)

And Fleming had never denied anyone his methods he himself had used to extract and preserve penicillin.

That is why he got - and deserved to get - the Nobel Prize for penicillin.

I,then, am also a partisan of Fleming's worth, like Milton Wainwright and Kevin Brown ---- up to a point.

I'd take his freewill "spores in a letter", in a New York instant, over Florey's secretive "spores in a coat", any day.....

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