Monday, September 10, 2012

Nova Scotian-born Dr Henry Dawson and the "Invention" of systemic - natural - penicillin

The "Invention" of systemic - natural - penicillin

Discovery vs Invention
Many substances were "discovered" many years (sometimes centuries) before they were (re) "invented" as having a highly useful medical effect.

It is only since Aug 1945 (and the ascendancy of Physics over Chemistry as the Queen of Science) that we have devoted all our adulation to "discovery" , rather than "invention" in medicine.

Carbolic acid and sulfa's both had early dates of discovery (versus their much later first medical use) .

Alexander Fleming is - wrongly - credited with discovering the penicillin we have used since 1940 - but what did he actually do ?

 Fleming in fact thought his penicillin would be useful as a sort of "Plan B" antiseptic -- and only if pure and synthetic.

Howard Florey - ten years later - thought his penicillin would be a useful "Plan B" back-up systemic to Sulfa -- but again, only if pure and synthetic.

By contrast, right from the start and until his death, Martin Henry Dawson thought that natural (even if impure) systemic penicillin would be the "Plan A" choice to cure the incurable, to save the unsavable --- starting with those dying of invariable fatal SBE.

Only two people in New York worked with penicillin in 1940, despite a war (with millions soon to be dying of infections) raging the world over.

 One doctor published a conventional article in JBC, reminding bacteriologists how useful crude penicillin could be as an agent to clear common throat bacteria from suspected specimens of influenza bacteria.

That was about all that penicillin was in (semi-) common use for, in 1940. Just as carbolic acid had its various non-clinical uses in the days before Lister "re-invented" it as a life-saver.

The other doctor, Dawson,  saw crude penicillin as the most likely cure for SBE.

NOT because it was a super-killer of bacteria, but for some less sexy but rather more "useful" characteristics: it combined nearly-limitless non-toxicity with an extraordinary diffusion ability.

He could thickly saturate the blood stream with penicillin without killing the patient, and hope some would still diffuse in past the thick vegetations (bio-films) of SBE, as that saturated blood rushed past the diseased heart valves at breakneck speed.

Some modern SBE patients have needed as much as a kilo of pure penicillin over many months - that's 1.67 BILLION units of penicillin - but have beaten the disease.

Still while penicillin - and only penicillin - could save an SBE in the 1940s, SBE was a prodigious user of then very scarce penicillin, so Dawson also had to morally kick start ("invent") an entire "natural penicillin" industry into existence, to deliver the amount of penicillin needed for his SBE patients.

(As a by-product, the rest of the world soon got as much penicillin as anyone could need - so much so it was soon feed to cattle as a growth stimulator, partly to absorb some of the production.)

I say his "invention" was by moral argument, because the scientific and commercial consensus then was that only synthetic (patentable) penicillin could do the trick.

But only when Dawson morally convinced the head of Pfizer, John l Smith, to take a very great financial risk and go against the consensus of his industry, did the miracle of penicillin really begin to happen....

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