Monday, December 31, 2012

The re-invention of a military-only antiseptic into "bedside penicillin for all" creates a global beacon of hope for a world at war

the tiny stone the builders rejected
Despite the self-centred claims of physicists, the greatest benefits to humanity have generally been ardently pursued (invented), not accidentally stumbled upon (discovered).

DNA was discovered in 1860s by an Swiss doctor, but for most of us, it was really only discovered 125 years later in the late 1980s.

That was when it began to first be successfully used to solve unsolved criminal cases, when British researcher Alec Jeffries re-invented 'DNA' as a means to definitely identify biological evidence left at the scene of a crime.

The great medical pioneer Joseph Lister clearly re-invented carbolic acid, when he took it from just one of many industrial solvents and turning it into a global life-saver.

Paul Gelmo "invented" sulfa as man-made chemical in Vienna in 1908 and it was routinely patented in 1909 by Bayer the chemical giant hoping it might yet be a useful chemical intermediate reagent.

But not until Gerhard Domagk , also of Bayer, who systemically tested every one of his firm's new chemical creations for its medical potential, was its life-saving abilities "discovered".

But I still hold this to be a case of re-invention.

 It took an awful lot of grit and determination during the Great Depression to waste scarce company money by systemically and thoroughly testing every one of the thousands of chemicals Bayer made, on then very remote possibility one might have medical applications.

The Nobel committee obviously agreed with me - giving Domagk the inventor and not Gelmo the discoverer the Nobel Prize for sulfa.

Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in1928 and "discovered" it was only useful as a military-style antiseptic.

In 1940, Florey and Chain accidentally discovered that penicillin also might work as a systemic.

But like Fleming (by 1940) ,they still choose to emphasize its rather limited application against combat wounds infected by staph bacteria : a tiny, tiny, TINY proportion of all the deaths caused by WWII.

They were hardly alone : I was amazed to discover in my research that I could find no penicillin-making researcher between 1928 and 1945 who first put their penicillin to work as a human systemic life-saver, before they also tried it on localized wounds.

With one crucial exception: Henry Dawson.

In October 1940, months ahead of the schedule that he and his three fellow researchers had already worked out, he choose to inject systemic penicillin into two young men suffering from invariably fatal endocarditis.

At least one of the men - unexpectedly - lived.

It wasn't because of Dawson's penicillin : at an estimated 8 units per mg, it was about .56% pure.

Useless Junk ? Or Love, Hope and Charity ?

The rest (99.44%) was junk - or as I like to emphasis : "99 and 44 100ths percent pure love....hope... and charity" -- bedside penicillin.

A good bedside manner has probably saved more lives throughout history than all but a tiny handful of medications.

I contend that Dawson deliberately used his tiny amounts of home-made penicillin as part of his traditional clinician's bedside manner, to rally his patients' own body defences against their disease.

As prove, I offer up Gladys Hobby, a fellow member of his tiny team, who said she daily walked through Henry Dawson's wards, showing the patients the growing penicillium in flasks, hoping their rising interests in their treatment might rally their psychic resources.

Dawson was not content to reserve his invention of "bedside penicillin" to the handful of endocarditis patients that his small home-made supply could hope to treat.

So Dawson quickly told a convention of his colleagues (the world's top clinical researchers) that natural penicillin had "unlimited possibilities", thousands times stronger than the then acclaimed synthetic sulfas, but without their toxic side effects and inability to work well in blood and pus.

These researchers took his claims home to their labs all over the world.

Meanwhile popular media, like the New York Times , Newsweek and the wire services, spread his gospel throughout North America.

He tried to get the American government - in 1941 -(and by extension all Allied governments) to take over the production of penicillin form Big Pharma and mass produce it themselves in quantity.

Instead, wartime government bureaucrats, who were themselves paid consultants to Big Pharma , censored Dawson's conventional scientific methods to spread his good news - by restricting his access to scientific journals and restricting what he could say at scientific conferences.

But in wartime, person-to-person gossip becomes the new telegraph.

So Dawson was able to keep on spreading the word until most all of the doctors in metropolitan New York and beyond had heard of his unexpected successes with systemic natural penicillin, curing incurable endocarditis , the "Gold Standard" of infectious diseases.

Penicillin , he said, didn't have only a limited wartime role, limited to just being applied to local staph infections in combat wounds or to cure self-inflicted military VD cases.

He said it  had unlimited possibilities and could cure many of the diseases that plague a peacetime nation or a multi-million man wartime military --- if only government bureaucrats opened their eyes, their hearts and their pockets and gave it a "fair go" .

When the world's general populace, after the story of Baby Patricia broke worldwide, catch Dawson's "vision thing" , governments were forced to play catch up in the production of actual penicillin.

Meanwhile, they too caught Dawson's "vision thing" and governments all over the world turned their propaganda machine full blast to tout penicillin as a beacon of future health and hope for all , if only the Allies win this war.

The key change in the Allied governments' approach was that "for all" as it became clear that the voters did not agree with an Allied war effort that deliberately limited the supply of life-saving medicine and then triaged the world into the people worth saving and those not worth saving.

That - they said - sounded awfully familiar : wasn't that also Hitler's line ?

Well it was certainly Modernity's line : the  methods of instrumental rationality ruled all the modern nations from America to Germany.

By contrast, Dawson's general systemic was 'general' in the widest sense of that word.

 He thought it was particularly important in a Total War against Absolute Evil to give - and be seen giving - life-saving health care and food & shelter to all : it  was the best single reason why people should be willing to fight and die for the Allies' cause.

And seventy five odd years later, was he not right ?

Penicillin has a powerful mystique that tens of thousands of other useful medications ,combined, can't hope to match.

Dawson's crusade to make his inexpensive, abundant, safe "bedside penicillin" a commonplace at hospital beds the world over , in war and in peace , is the major reason we grant penicillin that mystique....

No comments:

Post a Comment