Tuesday, January 1, 2013

DDT and the myth of "a product of WWII science"

There is no more tired (or dishonest) a journalistic bromide than the claim that this or that boon to humanity was discovered, invented, developed and produced by WWII scientists.

What actually happened, ninety nine times out of a hundred, is that belatedly some senior military or scientific bureaucrat reluctantly agreed to let some underlings spend money on a 'half-baked' idea that had been discovered or invented years earlier but had seen little commercial success up to now.

For example : DDT had been synthesized in 1874.

But no uses had been found for it by its inventor so it lay about un-used until 1939 when Paul Muller of the Swiss firm Geigy decided to try it out as a way to kill the moths that eat woollen clothing.

It worked - and worked - and worked : it was the first wide spectrum insecticide that was both harmless to humans and persistent : killing by contact, for up to six month.

Geigy knew it had a winner but the rest of the insecticide world yawned.

In 1942, it tried a new tactic : it told the military attache from the USA in Berne about its abilities, suggesting it might have wide applications in the sort of terrain the Americans were currently fighting in (dah !), and offered a licensing deal.

Naturally the Defense Department accepted the gift with great reluctance : even the normally mild-tempered Eisenhower actually had to fake a nuclear meltdown to convince the Pentagon to give him more DDT to prevent an expected mass epidemic of typhus in the winter of 1944 in Italy.

This, despite typhus being very well known as the number one military killer throughout the last half millennium of history !

DDT is very much like Penicillin : both were not run of the mill variants of their types but rather far and away the best of their types : their commercial success might have been delayed but it was inevitable they would be huge successes ultimately.

There were very few 'real secrets' in WWII

Neither were totally secret during WWII ( indeed perhaps only the great successes of the Allied and Axis code-breakers were truly secret during the war.)

But they were intended to remain largely unavailable to the general public for as long as possible , not because of any absolute inability to produce them in quantity, but because widespread public success in America would only alert the enemy overseas to their value.

The details on how to make commercial amounts of both Penicillin and DDT were in the public record but the Germans didn't take up Penicillin and the Japanese didn't take up DDT - sending hundreds of thousands of their combat troops to any early grave.

We might regard American and Japanese generals equally stupid for ignoring the military potential of DDT when it went on the market in 1940, but to be fair , we should also regard American and Japanese CEOs being equally blind to the commercial potential of DDT.

And of Penicillin.

It is indeed curious that in all the millions of words written by writers about Fleming and Florey's "seminal"  public articles announcing the miracle of penicillin (over and over and over again), no author has bothered to research the amount of response back to their authors upon publication.

Perhaps because there was so very little.

Gladys Hobby says that a Dr Herrell wanted details and a penicillium sample immediately after Henry Dawson's first
penicillin presentation at a huge medical conference in Atlantic City in May 1942 and a month later, a fruitful letter offering support came from mid level Pfizer (then not really a drug company) employees.

But she says that was it .

(Except that the popular media gave Dawson's presentation huge play : New York Times, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Newsweek, the wire services, etc. : perhaps they were more on the ball than the scientific media.)

Earlier, Dawson's plans to inject penicillin into SBE patients in October 1940 had been communicated by his colleagues, consultants to various New York area drug companies, and as a result there had been a sudden flurry of activity around penicillin at these firms but it soon died back.

It generally had consisted of nothing more than putting a few flasks of penicillium up to brew.

Apparently no drug company approached him then to offer to make serious amounts for a proper clinical trial.

Word hadn't reached Pfizer  in October 1940 - it was not then inside the drug company gossip and rumour circuit.

While they claim they had reps at the Atlantic City meeting, I believe that it was more likely the fact that the story of Dawson's penicillin ending up near the business section of the New York Times that probably moved the very cautious management of Pfizer to approach Dawson a month later.

One of the enduring themes of this blog is the relative un-importance of public science (being published in the scientific media) and the crucial importance of popular science (publication in the conventional media) to propel new ideas, inventions and discoveries forward.

Most senior figures in government, business, science, the military etc are simply constitutionally incapable of making the bold move from reading about a major new idea in the scientific press to promptly investing heavily in it.

Only the fear of public embarrassment if one of their competitors gets there first will move them off the toilet : and here stories in the popular media will indeed move them to do so.

'Why maybe their own daughter and wife might see the story and ask why he hadn't made enough penicillin to save his own nephew Joey at Guadalcanal?'

Put bluntly, stores in the popular media is the best (and often the only) way to embarrass bureaucrats to take seriously new ideas they have already read about - and dismissed - in the public (scientific) media.

 And so informal censorship of semi-secret ideas is the best way to prevent such public embarrassment - if hardly the best way to win a war .....

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