Friday, November 30, 2012

The mercky history of pre-war synthetic B1 ... and synthetic penicillin

What if Merck had quickly synthesized penicillin early in 1939, when it first started looking at the substance ? Remember this was before Europe was at war - let alone America, so Merck's normal peacetime behavior would have applied.

Romney economics in other words - not for nothing was the owner George W Merck a part time company owner and a full time back room Republican activist.

His behavior around thiamine is instructive on how he would have acted with synthetic penicillin.

 Thiamine is also called vitamin B1 and it prevents beriberi-like disease (like pellagra) among poor people forced to eat mostly over-refined grains.

It is the same life-giving stuff that millers so carefully remove from flour and bread and rice.

But now they were willing to put back in again - in a synthetic form - but at a price high enough to ensure few of the Great Depression's hungry could actually afford its benefits.

An altruistic chemist named Robert R Williams had searched for and invented a cheap way to create thiamine in the lab - he had then given the  resulting patent to the non-profit Research Corporation and hoped to see it got to supplementing the poor diets of the poor - by going into flour and bread at no charge.

But Merck had partially funded his research so it to had a say in how it would be used and sold.

Williams , son of Baptist ministers and a telephone company scientist in his day job, had long hoped to end the many nutrition-related deaths he saw caused by modern milling practises that only gave empty calories.

He did his work, much of it, in his garage, using his wife's washing machine as a centrifuge --- but Merck had helped with money and testing equipment, as had Martin Henry Dawson's university, Columbia.

Aaron Bobrow-Srain, consulting Williams' diaries from that period (found in the archive of Williams' papers), discovered that Merck (and General Mills) wanted an exclusive license if they were to mass produce and use synthetic B1 in bread .

They would charge a premium price and thus ensure it would only go to the bread eaten by the well to do - who hardly needed diet supplements to prevent the diseases more found commonly among poor people like southern share-croppers !

It took the war and a government order for the price of B1 to drop so that all bread got its life-saving qualities.

During the war, Merck made lots of B1, but at less per unit profit, but with a much greater volume they didn't exactly starve --- so busy in fact that they hardly had any time to make public domain natural penicillin.

First synthesize penicillin , then perfect it and patent it  with hopes to make tons of money on it : that would  enough to get George W Merck excited .

Too bad that only the well-to-do dying from infections would be able to afford the resulting perfectly synthesized penicillin ...

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