Monday, January 14, 2013

A forgotten meme from "The Golden Age of Mysteries" held sway over wartime penicillin : to the detriment of the dying

The grey-haired teenagers of the 1870s to 1890s, the guys who actually ran World War Two, grew up on the stories of the Golden Age of Mysteries and Detectives, starting with Sherlock Holmes' Study in Scarlet in 1887.

And one thing you quickly learned in all those thousands of books in dozens of languages was that the formula that the spy had stolen from the safe - the formula upon which the fate of the Empire ( or perhaps even the world) hung - was never a formula in physics or biology or geology or astronomy.

It was always a formula in Chemistry : always a formula for the synthesis of some extremely powerful explosive or fuel or drug.

Chemistry and synthesis in those days held all the non-chemists in shock and awe --- from at least the1870s until after Hiroshima in 1945.

Much as physics held the minds of non-physicists between 1945 and 1985 and the way micro-biology still holds our non-biologist brain cells.

(Ever since the day we-the-laity first discovered that courts could convict serial murders just on the scientific basis of their trace DNA left at the scene of the crimes.)

The solution for almost every problem that wartime penicillin faced - and there were many - was "throw more chemists at the problem".

The solution for the shortage of penicillin being produced  just had to be "synthesis it - we humans have to be way smarter than mold slime could ever hope to be".

The real solution  - when it came - was surprisingly mundane : like farmers have done for thousands of years, we simply went out and looked for better breeders - in this case, better breeders who gave us, not more milk , but more penicillin instead.

The solution was not a chemical formula from the collective brains of thousands of top chemists, but rather the eyes of one, rather ordinary, mycologist in a fruit market in Illinois.

Remember the black humour vogue for "thin books" ?

(The best known was "Italian War Heroes" - unfair because even the Germans and British felt that the Italians were frequently brave and often very effective.)

the ultimate "THIN BOOK"

A better, truly thin, book would be "Mycologist War Heroes" .

Exactly where were those bastards between 1928 and 1945 anyway ?

They mightn't have been asked, very often, to paid work on penicillin - but they didn't seem to be exactly eager to volunteer either : and the importance of penicillin during WWII  (aside from its chemistry aspects from 1943 to 1945) was hardly top secret .

I suspect most mycologists spent the 'ultimate war between good and evil' either stamp collecting or devising secret ways to use funguses to destroy enemy food crops, aka germ or biological warfare.

Then civilians deaths could be got in truly wholesale amounts - not merely in the paltry retail numbers that Bomber Harris's aerial bombing had produced.

If wartime mycologists had gotten their wicked way, fungi would have still done their part to help win the war.

But not by saving millions, but rather by killing millions.......

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