Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Little Belgium" : Floor "G" Columbia Presbyterian Hospital , Oct 16th 1940 - Feb 4th 1945

On October 16th 1940, the first day of registration for America's WWII Draft, Belgium was well past defending from the Boche.

Like Czechoslavia, Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxenbourg and Norway, Belgium was one of many small nations of Europe that had already fallen to Nazi Germany, without America so much as putting up a squeak.

WWII was not like WWI - if the Great War had been dominated by Victoria sentimentalism - WWII was Victorian social darwinism's war : a cold, hard-faced, ruthless war.

No "poor bleeding Belgium" this time - no "poor bleeding Poland" either.

Belgium was not an area of vital political or economic interest to America and so 'sentiment be damned' : America was not about to waste money and lives defending the small and the weak on the basis of mere humanitarian sentiment : 'we're living in the Modern Age, not the Victorian Era'.

But Dr Martin Henry Dawson had earlier felt much differently.

As a very young man, he abandoned his promising university career to join up the same day (October 16th 1915) that he first read in the North American newspapers that Edith Cavell had been executed for aiding the Belgians.

That meant that today marked his 25th year in Medicine, because he had initially joined up for a year in the medical corps, despite being a non-medical student.

Then, later, as first an infantryman and then as an artilleryman, he had spent most of the rest of the war in and out of hospital because he had twice been seriously wounded and won the Military Cross with Citation for bravery for his efforts while wounded.

Now, giving up his established career and family in still neutral America to get a Canadian Medical Corps desk job in England (as a middle aged/ middlingly healthy bacteriologist that was all he could hope for) didn't seem to be much in the way of help for Belgium and all the other small poor weak people being stomped upon by the Mighty and the Powerful .

Besides, the poor and the weak here at home in America were once again be stomped upon by the Mighty and Powerful of their own nation using the pending threat of war as an excuse to do so.

"We can't afford to waste scarce medical resources on Nature's 4Fs : eugenics teaches us that we need to preserve our best and that means our 1A fighting men".

So the few timid attempts at what was then called Social Medicine were halted and the money re-directed into War Medicine : research on the unique problems and diseases of fighting a modern world-wide war.

Social Medicine had its origins in the ferment around the Great Depression and the New Deal .

It combined directing more money on traditional public health measures aimed at the poorest citizens together with discussions on how best to ensure working class and middle class people had insurance against major medical emergencies.

All the powerful - from the AMA leadership on down - saw this as a giant intellectual threat to individualism and unfettered business enterprise.

The universities, then Republican Party hotbeds, led the charge against Social Medicine : and Columbia University-Presbyterian Hospital loyally signed up in the Fall of 1940 : directing its School of Medicine to put more teaching dollars into War Medicine courses without offering any new dollars to pay for it.

Guess what was hinted could be usefully cut,  to pay for the new courses ?

So the dawn of October 16th 1940 and all eyes of the media were on Columbia University's two campuses on Manhattan.

Columbia  was widely seen as a bellweather on whether American students, who had earlier talked about refusing to fight anymore wars, would obey their elders and register for the Draft.

To ensure all did, the university closed the two campuses and cancelled all classes for the day. Almost all the students and professors of young enough age, did indeed march off obediently to register before the lights and motion cameras of the newsreel crews.

(Including undergrad Jack Kerouac, who took time off from hefting big mysterious blocks of something or other for Fermi and Szilard's Atomic Pile in the basement of the Physics building.)

On October 16th 1940 and until the Actual Belgium's total liberation on February 4th 1945, Floor G became a defacto "Little Belgium"

But in Dawson's tiny team on Floor G of the Presbyterian building , no member had to go register : two (Hobby and Chaffee) were the right age and health, but as women were not valued as potential draftees.

Karl Meyer, like Dawson, was a Great War veteran but was now overage : Dawson was not only overage, his war wounds made him even more unattractive, even as a potential volunteer recruit.

The team's two patients (Aronson and Alston) were young men of the right age, so had to be registered in theory , despite being universally regarded as terminally ill.

I think that the draft officials might well have regarded it as a waste of time and needlessly cruel to register the two clearly dying boys , only to send 4F notices to their grieving parents two months later.

But I suspect Dawson would have urged the draft officials to register the two lads, because he believed that hope - along with his untried penicillin - was the best possible cure for their "invariably fatal" SBE.

"Register the boys - please - because I intend to have them up and in fighting trim in no time !"

(Those would have to be words for the boys' ears only, because no army ever knowingly took anyone with damaged heart valves , "cured" or not.)

SBEs, to be brutally frank, were the world's 4Fs of the 4Fs, probably the first victims of any rollback of Social Medicine .

To start their cure on the very day that North America's eyes were all focussed on War medicine's much touted 1As , had to be Dawson's silent rebuke to a nation and a medical community eager to overlook the poor and weak , in Poland, in Belgium and at home.

Morever, Dawson was rebuking Big Pharma's focus on the big as well, because they saw no reason to help Dawson and his foolish crusade to inject crude natural penicillin into humans.

So his medicine was not made in any huge factory by man-made techniques, but produced by billions of tiny fungus factories at the bottom of a handful of flasks in Dawson's own lab.

Verily, the weak and the foolish would have to come to the aid of the small and the weak, if the Mighty and the Wise were unwilling.

So it was on Day One of the start of the Age of Antibiotics.

And as Dawson abruptly lifted the needle into the air before sinking it gently along the skin of the boys' arm, the Italian in us might have seen it as a medical "up yours !".

And looking back from almost 75 years later, would we be so wrong.....

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