Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Duncan BC's forgotten wartime PENICILLIN pioneer, Donald MacRae

Duncan's Donald MacRae
The June 29th 1945 issue of the Canadian Army wartime newspaper, The Maple Leaf, records a Vancouver interview with a medic , Private Donald MacRae of Duncan BC , recounting his 1943 Italian experience making battlefield penicillin and saving lives.

It was just something humanitarians of all nations were required to do, in the decade and a half before Big Pharma was forced by Doctor Mom to finally start making commercial penicillin.

How KP duty helped save lives

What caught my eye in this little known story is that this particular group of penicillin-makers found the penicillium fungi grew penicillin best in the water into which potatoes had been left overnight. 

(MacRae's story rings true in all its other technical detils, right down to his group obtaining the penicillium spores from Egypt . Robert Pulvertaft's hospital-made penicillin operation in Cairo is very well documented and Pulvertaft gave his methods and his spores out freely, even to doctors from hostile neutral nations, if it would help save lives.)

Duncan honor Donald Macrae ?
Time, perhaps long overdue, for the City of  Duncan to thank Donald MacRae for this wartime life-saving.

I can add a little personal experience to the subject of Canadian Army issue potatoes, the peeling of, Sir !

 I spent a hot summer's day in a cool backroom once, doing Canadian Army KP duty, peeling potatoes and cleaning other vegetables and quite preferred it to running through the dusty sand of CFB Aldershot with a C2 light machine gun.

I was 5 foot ten and a half, 105 pounds ( with my clothes off I looked a bit like a Japanese POW) --- so naturally I always got put at the long end of a forced march arc, carrying a heavy C2 , while guys much more physically built than me got the short trip with a lighter C1 rifle.

Infantry intelligence (or lack of) -  you gotta got to love it !

I would be delighted to know if MacRae meant that the Canadian potatoes, probably from PEI and points East and shipped out in barrels, were first put in water overnight to remove remnants of Canadian dirt.

 Or was it the case that the Army's potatoes were generally peeled the night before the day of their cooking and that once peeled en masse, are quickly buried in buckets of water to prevent oxidation and discoloring until they were cooked ?

The water that peeled potatoes are held in are rich in a carbon source (starch) and are a well-known, well-used and welcome food to the fungi that make illicit beer. It would tend to retain trace amounts of minerals from the soil the potatoes were grown in.

 It would prove to be a 'complex medium'  (aka "we aren't sure what is in it") as the biologists call it and generally complex mediums did better growing penicillin than did the chemically pure "defined" growing formulas the chemists offered up.

But dirty potatoes left uncut in water overnight also leach out a little starch and other plant chemicals as well as giving lots of earth minerals. Filtered for solids, it too might be a good starting base for growing penicillin along with a bit of glucose sugar and milk sugar.

MacRae, who before the war had been a first aid man in remote logging camps, said it wasn't till March 1944 that the Canadian Army in Italy got enough commercial penicillin to cease making illicit life-saving penicillin (so it could now return to making illicit soul-saving beer instead ?)

March 1944 was the first month that then tiny soda pop supplier, Pfizer,  starting producing billions and billions of units of natural penicillin in a scaled up version of MacRae's effort  --- thanks to the advice and urgings of another Canadian penicillin pioneer , Nova Scotian born and raised Martin Henry Dawson.

Dawson was, in fact, the first person to ever inject penicillin into a patient, October 16th 1940 --- using penicillin his tiny team had grown themselves.

His team's secret ingredient ? A much loved local favourite, Jack Frost Dark (brown sugar) ....

No comments:

Post a Comment