Monday, January 21, 2013

Dawson's DIY penicillin a postmodernist "shot across the bow" of Modernist Big Pharma

Two hundred years from now, only the first of the Dawson team's many articles on wartime penicillin will still be cited and still considered seminal.

This, despite the fact that Nova Scotia-born Henry Dawson's last penicillin article told a surprised world that invariable fatal subacute bacterial endocarditis (the much dreaded SBE) had finally been cured - by his penicillin method that he had pioneered 5 years earlier.

But instead it is Dawson's first penicillin first article, the "impure but non toxic" article of May 5th 1941, that had (and continues to have) ramifications beyond any one disease, ramifications indeed beyond even medicine and science itself.

In that article, delivered before a large group of international medical researchers in Atlantic City and widely reported by the popular and scientific media from The New York Times to the South Africa Medical Journal, Dawson deliberately paired and then contrasted two oxymoronic phrases.

But first, recall that Dawson chose to appear in front of all his peers to praise his new drug to the heavens AND announce that it had no therapeutic effect on a series of four SBE cases in a row.

Trust me on this one : normally scientists do not rush to the biggest conference in town to proudly announce repeated failure.

But it wasn't the lack of therapeutic success from his impure natural penicillin that Dawson was really so eager to announce.

Rather it was the lack of toxic effects from his crude homemade mixture of natural penicillin and its natural impurities that he was so proud (and perhaps amazed) to announce.

(In a sort of 'reverse Ivory Soap', his starting penicillin brew was far less than 99 and 44 100th percent impure :  pure penicillin made up only one part per million of his mixture !)

It could have had - perhaps even should have had - a highly deadly mycotoxin  poison buried somewhere in that fungus mix, but God took pity on Humanity and it did not.

We do not have a complete version of Dawson's report and ad lib comments , only various precis. But assembled together, I believe we can garner Dawson's actual words and phrases used to prescribe his main intent behind this article.

He described how his tiny team made their hospital-grown crude (impure) and natural penicillin, calling it both more potent and much less toxic than the factory-made chemically pure synthetic sulfa drugs, less potent and more toxic, made by Big Pharma .

His takeaway line, as the CBC's Don Connolly likes to say, is that "despite being impure, homemade natural penicillin was actually less toxic and much more potent than factory-made pure synthetic sulfa drugs."

"Living better chemically ?"

Today, in this postmodern age,  this statement might hardly seem controversial ; but in 1940, at the apogee of Modernity, to diss the Du Pont slogan of "living better chemically" was to indulge in sheer heresy.

At the same university as Dawson (Columbia) and at the exact same time, famed German-scholars-in-exile Adorno and Horkheimer were busy dismantling 500 years of Modernity, brick by brick, and patiently reassembling them as Postmodernity.

Perhaps posthumously, their fellow university colleague Henry Dawson can lay claim to being among Postmodernity's first scientific converts.....

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