Monday, November 12, 2012

1940 : Henry Dawson invents antibiotics - without ever quite realizing it !

Dr Martin Henry Dawson knew (from the published medical literature of Alexander Fleming) he was not the first person to treat a person clinically with penicillin, so he modestly limited himself to saying only that he was the first person in America to do so.

(In truth, though it wasn't known till about 50 years after the event, he wasn't even the first person to cure a patient with penicillin.)

But why we celebrate his efforts is that he was the first to cross an all-important psychological barrier --- without apparently ever realizing it.

Dawson was the first person to attempt to cure a life-threatening disease with an antibiotic  ---- as we understand its meaning today : a systemic life-saving medication produced naturally by microbes.

Let us break that sentence apart word by word.

Fleming only used penicillin as an antiseptic and even got an unpublished cure by doing so, as did one of his former students (a success also tragically never made public.)

Antiseptics (germ-killing medications applied to the outer surface of the body, in open wounds or in the eye socket etc) can cure a disease, but very rarely - by themselves - cure a potentially fatal disease.

Generally any infectious disease capable of killing us does so because it has spread throughout the inside of our bodies and needs to be combated by a similarly mobile medication.

In other words, by a systemic, not an antiseptic : some medicine that we swallow or have injected into us by needle, a medication that then spreads freely throughout our bodies, killing the germs wherever they may be found.

Antibiotics were something totally new to Mankind's way of doing medicine, when introduced in the 1940s.

Man, animals and plants are immensely huge in size and so were apparently 'complex' , compared to germs and microbes. So it seemed only natural that only we big beings could produce clever ways to kill the tiny beings that threaten us.

We invented totally new medications or synthesized the drugs produced by plants to fight off microbes.

But none worked very well.

They had a tendency to kill the human as quick as they killed the germ --- they weren't very selective.

Penicillin was a real kick in the head for the naive and hubristic scientists of  1940.

It was produced by the tiny fungus that created those foul smelling slimes in our dark dank basements -- produced by the lowest of the lower - lower than any tramp on the street.

That role reversal did not sit well with this eugenically-oriented age.

And Penicillin was tremendously effective by being tremendously selective. It zeroed in on the one thing that sharply distinguished bacteria from all other life - their "walls" - and tore it apart, killing the bacteria.

But since we humans had no walls - and nothing in our bodies at all like it - this powerful germ killer was totally ( and I do mean totally) non-toxic to humans.

Yes, some people can be made allergic to it, but this is not toxic in the definition of that word : if a substance is toxic, it is toxic to all of us.

And it was made naturally, by those slimy fungus, slime poop if you want to get technical, mixed in with all the other waste by products of fungus life.

Ugh ! said 99.9999999999999% of the world's forward thinking doctors.

These cutting edge doctors, who routinely glanced through all the really big medical journals, agreed with authors who said penicillin will only be useful medically when (crucially not "if") Man has synthesized and improved upon it, giving us a 100% pure, stable, cheap, abundant medication we can use without any effort on our parts.

Until then, the world's patients dying of infectious diseases would just have to put up with synthesized Sulfa-based medications, of which there are already hundreds of variants and that unlike those pesky fungus, Man's rational mind was constantly improving.

(No dirty-dark garlic-eating slimy fungus is smarter than a clean-shaven Northern European Protestant male scientist !)

But surprisingly, many doctors were not opposed to other doctors dabbing impure natural penicillin on open wounds or even encouraging patients to swallow it.

But never never was impure natural penicillin to go into the bloodstream via a needle.

This, after all , was a pre-DNA era, when people felt a person's generic character was found in their blood : and people of all stripes routinely talked of pure bloods versus mixed bloods.

In many American states, any white with 1/32 negro blood was legally fully black and the American Red Cross forbade the mixing of negro and white blood when creating blood products for blood transfusions.

Introducing impure dirty penicillin from those slimy foul smelling basement walls into the human blood stream ( the river of the race) was beyond the pale, though I doubt scientists - of all people ! - would articulate their unspoken feelings in such emotional terms.

They based their faith on the claim that impure penicillin's unwanted fellow travellers were dangerous --- though all the evidence at hand in 1940 said otherwise.

In the end, these fellow travellers never caused any problems - and possibly helped impure natural penicillin do its job.

Only when natural penicillin was 99.99% and available to give in huge doses, did a few people start dying - from pure penicillin itself !!!!

Now of these moral panics stalled Dawson in the Fall of 1940 : in just 5 incredible weeks he moved from first learning of penicillin to inventing his own little penicillin factory and then injecting the resulting penicillin into the bloodstream of two young men dying of invariably fatal endocarditis.

Seventy five years later, injected impure natural penicillin is still how we save lives from endocarditis.

Dawson clearly was so colour blind - the first patients he injected with his penicillin were almost certainly a black and a Jew - that he didn't perceive a barrier to break.

Seventy years after Auschwitz, few of us are alive who still believe that our genetic character is in our blood ---- but we shouldn't deny that it once was a near universal sentiment - and honour a man who bucked this evil idea....

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