Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"The weak shall be strong" : the DIVINE IRONY (in the Chesterton sense) of penicillin, 'the medicine from Muskogee'

      There is nothing more uncool and literally square than  the penicillin drugs, but they have saved more lives - because of their squareness - than 'the hip have had hot dinners'.
    Most North Americans have heard - and understood - the Merle Haggard song "Okie from Muskogee", but readers from the rest of the world might need a little help.

   Driven out of the state by the 1930s Dust Bowl, poverty-stricken rural Oklahoma residents headed to the Golden Land (California) where the equally-Depression-hit locals made the 'Okies' feel about as welcome as Gypsies or Travellers are in most countries even today.
    In 1969, at the height of the counterculture movement and protests against the Viet Nam War, Haggard (whose parents were from small town,rural Muskogee) decided to gently satirize - and yet support - the old fashioned values of small town America in general - and those of the much-joked-upon Okies in particular.
   The song 'made' Haggard, for both good and for bad and remains highly evocative for all North Americans born before about 1955.
   In Haggard's eyes, Muskogee comes across as a Mayberry sort of town, "a place where even squares can have a ball."
   If that is indeed so, then it is the natural hometown for Penicillin and all the other beta lactam antibiotics have have saved literally billions of lives since the early 1940s.
   The beta lactams are an unusually weak organic molecule - you practically only have to look at them the wrong way and they become deactivated and useless.
   It was this quality that led Alexander Fleming, their discoverer, to stop investigating their life-saving properties very far.
   He and the other two Nobel prize winners connected to penicillin's development (Florey & Chain), wasted much precious time and many precious lives, trying to make penicillin more stable.
    It can be done - in fact it is done - all the time .
    By the very bacteria penicillin is designed to kill : who in stabilizing  penicillin also kill themselves in the process.
   The Divine Irony of penicillin - I only wish GK Chesterton could be here to wax about it  - is that it is the very weakness of penicillin and all its other beta lactam cousins that makes them, still, the world's leading lifesavers.
   I'd even go so far as to call them the most Christ-like of the medicines in their 'strength in weakness' nature.
   What makes the (relatively simple) beta lactam core molecule so unusual in the natural world is not that it is a ring-shaped molecule (very common) but that this ring is square - ie, is even sided.
  Now the stability of a molecule is dependent on the angle each atom in makes to the others as it bonds with them.
  Four atoms bonded to form a square makes 90 degree angles to each other, while atoms are much more comfortable (because much less stressed), if their angles are bigger or smaller than that.
   This means that the highly stressed beta lactam molecule takes only a very little effort to break it apart ( thus relieving the stress and rendering it highly stable) but the strength of a giant & a genius to put it back together again in it original, highly unstable form..
   The bacterial enzyme that breaks penicillin apart should really be at work making the bacteria's wall - the wall being secret for the success of the tiny bacteria, the world's oldest and most numerous lifeform by weight.
   But while it is child's play to enter into the penicillin molecule and break the ring, the hapless enzyme finds it  as a result that it is so closely bonded to the new - highly stable - penicillin molecule that it can't break free and do its job.
   The bacteria wall isn't finished and the bacteria bursts and dies ; the patient lives.
   The scientists of High Modernity, at their very apogee in 1939, because they were so adolescently defiant of traditional religious values lacked the intellectual abilities to suspect that something very weak could be successful----- because it was so weak.
   Their unquestioning support for Darwin's law of the jungle view that 'God was on the side of the big and the strong battalions' showed a dire lack of knowledge about the God of the New Testament (Christ), who contradicts this viewpoint on its every page.
    It took Canadian MH Dawson, not a religious man - at least in his own eyes - but someone with an interest in and respect for the weak of all sizes, who first overlooked penicillin's apparent weakness and set it to work to save lives.
    I would give every thing I own to be at God's side at Judgement Day, as he renders a verdict on this avowed non-believer, MH Dawson....

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