Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Needed : a MORAL history of Wartime Penicillin

SBE fatal to heart valves
It is impossible to write a truthful scientific or economic history of how wartime natural penicillin production became the template for today's enormous biotechnology industry.

Not impossible to write such histories - dozens of historians have already done so.

 Just not possible to do the job --- with any faithfulness to the actual contemporary record --- through those prisms.

Penicillin History has been Whig History....

By artfully cutting and pasting bits of the contemporary primary record it is possible to recast everything, even from that day in September 1928 when Fleming first saw that funny mold in his petri dish, as moving steadily and inevitably forward to the time when billions of units of natural produced systemic penicillin daily rolled off the line at Pfizer in the early Spring of 1944 - with natural (microbe produced) antibiotics being the norm to this day.

But in fact, most of the early1940s scientific, medical and commercial establishment was stunned into silence when penicillin ended up (a) suddenly proven up as the world's best-ever systemic life-saver and (b) being produced cheaply, abundantly and reliably - and produced only thanks to microbes to boot.

The 15 years up to 1944 had seen no new scientific advances or new commercial reasons to suddenly turn to penicillin as a systemic/lifesaver or to favour its production by natural (microbial) means  ---- over the situation as Alexander Fleming had described it in his first paper of  June 1929.

The scientific and commercial arguments against natural systemic penicillin in mass production were as good in March 1944 as they had been in March 1929, 15 years earlier.

Only the moral situation had changed.

All the scientific, medical and commercial reasons were still valid against Henry Dawson for staking his life to cure invariably fatal SBE with natural systemic penicillin and against "John L" Smith of Pfizer for staking his company to help him.

But their personal moral reasons for doing so were overwhelming to these two men and so they attempted and achieved the impossible.

 And our whole world was changed for the better, forever, as a result of those two - individual - moral decisions.....

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