Saturday, December 29, 2012

Even during Total War, its "who you know" not "what you know" : Richards, Queen and penicillin

Penicillin was not "reserved for military use only during WWII", as the cosy myth about wartime penicillin claims.

It was instead reserved as a plaything for medical researchers who would have quite happily have gone on polishing perfection until Judgement Day, if left to their own devices.

Consider how the American military finally got a look-see into penicillin, in early 1943 (remember the shooting war began back in the Fall of 1939).

A civilian pathologist-bacteriologist named Frank B Queen is now serving in the wartime army as a major and lab director in a large army hospital in an obscure part of Utah.

 (Needless to say, that is about as far off the beaten path in American 1940s medical science as one can possible be !)

Queen has started making his own hospital-grown penicillin, as he was sick and tired of seeing his patients with chronically infected deep bone wounds linger near death after months of useless sulfa treatment.

(The details of his home-grown efforts can be found in his July 1944 article in the journal, Northwest Medicine , under the title "Penicillin and its therapeutic uses".)

He writes Chester Keefer, who heads the NAS committee charged with wasting a few years research to see whether penicillin is as good as Henry Dawson has been saying it is.

(It is.)

Queen wants help on how to learn to grow penicillin better.

Keefer and his boss, A N Richards at the medical wing of the OSRD, have routinely told anyone from the Army requesting penicillin that it is still under review.

But two things about this request as different : the first was that the possibility of the Army growing its own penicillin because it couldn't get any any other way threatened the prestige of the medical research community.

 (And threatened the prestige and profits of the lack-luster American drug industry even more so!)

Secondly, Frank B Queen , it turned out, was a former student of AN Richards working with him and Howard Florey on a pioneering kidney project years earlier.

Merit and open competitions rarely entered into the mindset of American medical elites in those days : given the task of selecting members for a new committee you tended to appoint only from among your own university colleagues you knew you could rely upon - or on some of your former students.

Richards felt he could control Queen if he sent in one of Keefer's own men and a supply of OSRD-sanctioned penicillin, so Queen got the American military's first penicillin.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But the myth of wartime penicillin totally neglects to tell the real truth : that Queen was trying to make his own 'home-made penicillin', not obtain 'official penicillin' via the OSRD-Merck-Squibb cartel.

Thanks to David J Rothman, whose book, "Strangers at the Bedside" brought this fact to light (Page 40) ....

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