Friday, October 15, 2010

the epic triumph of DEMAND SIDE penicillin

All penicillin histories - to date - have been about what I call "SUPPLY SIDE" penicillin.

"Brilliant scientists, working day and night in the 15 years since September 1928, once again totally surprised humble but ever grateful lay people all over the world."

"They did so by dropping the new miracle cure penicillin  upon them, out of the blue, in September 1943."

This version of the saga says penicillin is best told in two competing stories or parts.

 But both parts are united in being all about active scientists --- with no role what so ever for us, the totally passive and inert citizenry, or in our roles as patients and patients' families.

Part One ,(1928-1937), features Dr Fleming - discoverer of penicillin - with far too many pages devoted to the mysteries of that discovery and with too few of the rest devoted to his efforts to bring his penicillin juice forward to the point of actually saving lives -----when used as an antiseptic.

Part Two, (1937-1940), features Dr Florey of Oxford University (all bow) and his years of wartime work on the chemistry of penicillin - all about his troubles extracting and purifying and synthesizing penicillin.

My book will be about Part Three, (1940-1943), the era of "DEMAND SIDE" penicillin. It will be all about the life-saving done by early penicillin doctors (not scientists), on the rare occasions when penicillin was diverted to the ward bedside and away from the synthetic chemists.

 It will focus on Dr Dawson - the patient. Yes, the patient.

Dawson was not unique in deciding to become a doctor after months spent in a hospital - Dr Colitti ( of Patty-Malone-and-penicillin fame) resolved to become a doctor after his own childhood bouts in hospital dealing with his spinal TB that left him a permanent hunchback.

For Dawson, his insights as a doctor dealing with chronically and terminally ill SBE patients could only have deepened when he himself became a chronically and terminally ill MG patient at about the same time.

Actually I will focus on Dawson, on his first penicillin cure Charlie Aronson, on Baby Patricia Malone's family and on the mother of a dead child he never got to save - Mae Smith, wife of Pfizer chief John L Smith.

In August 1943,Dr  Dante Colitti - inspired by Dawson's illegal SBE successes (an early example of ACTING UP) at another hospital a mile away, got Mr and Mrs Malone to also 'ACT UP' and publicly demand penicillin for their dying child.

Soon hundreds of families were doing the same all over North America and when enough Doctor Moms kicked up a fuss, even the stupidest men in Washington or Brooklyn listened - penicillin production really got moving, after 15 years of male excuses for 'not taking out the trash'.


Med Schools in that era - and perhaps even today - hated the chronically ill because they refused to die or get better, within the only school term that could be devoted to that particular form of illness.

The chronically ills' failure to get better 'put paid' to the notion that Science was always successful.

And Society in general packed the chronically ill of low income families away in large impersonal institutions with too many patients and too little money.

It got worse in wartime - a lot worse. A lot of people feel free to unleash their inner evilness in wartime and the helpless are a safe target.

In Hitler's Germany, the chronically ill were actively gassed - particularly those 'useless mouths' type patients like the SBEs (Charlie) and MGs (Dawson) who needed lots of repeated interventions of  high tech medical care without any hope they would eventually recover and start back at productive war work.

In Vichy France or in the US, it was more subtle - the eugenics of benign neglect.

Budgets were cut for the chronically ills day to day living expenses so more money could go to the war, or simply back to the well to do taxpayer when no one was able to complain.

Many chronically ill in institutions died of hunger-induced  infections while the budget-cutters' consciences could remain unsullied.

 Chronic illness research efforts were re-directed away from these useless mouths 4Fs towards the 1As and war medicine.

 Many patients were conscripted,without their informed consent, in some very dangerous experiments for the war - humans being as badly and baldly treated and cast off as laboratory white mice usually are.

Dawson and his supporters rejected the artificial divide between Social Medicine and War medicine, between social penicillin and war penicillin.

They said , against Hitler and Tojo, social medicine was war medicine,in fact the best kind of war medicine.

They said are we fighting Hitler simply because he took raw materials and markets we once regarded as ours or rather because we detest his values with all our hearts?

If it truly was the latter - FDR's Four Freedoms -  we should contrast how we treat our old and weak against how Hitler treated his.

For we will all become old and weak someday.

By 1943-1944, a lot of people saw that Dawson was right - and penicillin's promise was held out to people in the occupied ,enemy, allied and neutral nations as a symbol of the rightness of the Allied Cause.

Until then it had been treated as one of the Allies' best war weapons - a strange term for a life-saver .

 Yes, Dr Dawson probably did 'go a little native' when he got MG and became a perpetually ill patient as well as life-saving doctor -----but Thank God for that !

In January 1945, when AMA boss Morris Fishbein, the American medical censor, finally let Dawson tell American GPs about his five years of successfully curing SBE with penicillin, Dawson could reflect he hadn't done too badly for a chronically ill 4F.

Most histories of penicillin - to date - act like Dawson withdrew to a shadow world of chronic illness and inactivity after he got his MG diagnosis around May 1941, so the authors can return to focus on his rival Florey.

But in the Spring of 1945, Dawson could say, like a lot of chronically ill people who kept on being highly productive despite the pain, "*I'm Still Here - and so is my penicillin !"

Partially because of Dawson and Colitti's ACTING UP, patients today are much more likely to demand quick relief rather than simply waiting for the desultory scientists to get it all perfect and pure before dropping it into our grateful little hands - and Thank God for that, too....

* "I'm Still Here !" is a copyrighted expression and used with the kind permission of the late copyright holder, Margo Takacs Marshall, 1928-2010

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