Saturday, January 19, 2013

Did Merck consultant A N Richards diss penicillin during the first two years of the war?

Read any "Pollyanna" history of wartime penicillin and you quickly garner the impression that wartime Washington's top medical research bureaucrat, AN Richards of the famous OSRD organization, first learned of penicillin when his former student Howard Florey dropped by in the Fall of 1941.

In my opinion : "Bullfeathers" !

Richards was the key outside consultant for Merck and had been so since 1931 , so key that he acted more like a trusted insider, rather than playing the traditional role of an external naysayer brought in to correct too much internal group-think.

Since November 1939, a full two years before Richards is traditionally described as first getting involved in "this 'ere pen-E- cil-in stuff", Merck had been working fitfully on trying to learn the structure of  public domain natural penicillin with the hope its chemists could produce patentable, profitable "look alike" analogues.

Memo had flown back and forth and committee and board meetings had been called and minutes written.

Hard to believe that Richards the pharmaceutical expert consultant was not consulted formally and informally - ever - during those two years of internal Merck debate on the merits of seriously spending money on synthesizing penicillin.

But the silence from Merck and Richards on just what Richards said to Merck about the potential of penicillin between November 1939 and August 1941 is deafening.

It isn't at all like Richards or Merck to modestly not to claim credit for their early prescience on penicillin.

 In fact Merck brass went to enormous length to do just so in the major article "Wartime Industrial Development of Penicillin in the United States", written and researched in the late 1970s (with exclusive access to secret Merck archives) by company senior executiveW H Helfand.

Mysteriously, Richards name is totally absent during this article's discussion of the two years of Merck debate about penicillin, before Florey arrives at Richards' doorstep in Philadelphia.

However Helfand's article quotes Merck executive Osgood Perkins recalling that despite a memo "from so-called experts urging Merck not to waste time on it", in 1940 the company top brass decided to grow penicillin with the aim of isolating its active ingredient.

Now Osgood Perkins was a famous actor of that era but he never worked for Merck.

 However the equally famous Wall Street lawyer George W Perkins did - in fact he was the brother-in-law of the company president George W Merck and served as chief operating officer for several decades, including the war years.

(And like his brother in law, Perkins worked at the top of America's highly secret germ warfare program when America formally went to war but still kept a close eye on his company.)

But the quote is from Lennard Bickel's book on Howard Florey, Rise up to Life, and in it, Bickel says he quotes Merck executive Osgood Nichols (also referenced as Osgood Nicholls by Bickel) in conversation with AN Richards in the early 1960s.

(Osgood Nichols probably saw the memos while researching "By Their Fruits" , a book about Merck and Waksman.)

Now I have determined that Bickel did screw up names (but only slightly) in his book, so I feel certain we are looking at Nichols, not Perkins, for the source of this quote.

Richards is silent to Osgood as to who the so called experts might be (and surely he would know) but rushes to defend Florey.

Just exactly how Helfard screws all this so badly is hard to ken.

I suspect that those "so-called experts" included both the much honored Richards and the equally much-honored Columbia university medical researcher, Nobel prize winner and long time Merck consultant Dickinson Richards.

Dickinson worked literally next door to Henry Dawson, who did the most work on penicillin in North America between 1940 and 1941.

So this Dr Richards (no relation to AN Richards) saw the world's then most extensive penicillin efforts (microbiological production, chemical research and clinical efforts with the seriously ill) close up and personal every day.

Thus his opinion on penicillin , as a Merck medical consultant since 1935, between 1940 to 1941 had to be valuable to Merck - but what was it ?

I suspect one of the "the so-called experts" who dissed penicillin was Dickinson Richards.

Why ?  Because Helfand does not mention Merck offering to help Dickinson Richards' floor mate Dawson in his penicillin efforts in this very long article tasked with detailing everything and anything positive that Merck had done on penicillin before Florey arrived.

 (But we do know what a third outside consultant to Merck said about penicillin because Helfand does quote him extensively.)

 Soon to be Nobel Prize winner Selman Waksman is recorded as being strongly in favour of working up penicillin.

I believe that Helfand's job in this article was to recall all the good news and elide any bad news on Merck and penicillin 1939-1941 and he did his job rather well.

I think it would have rather spoiled the seamless panty lines of the traditional "Pollyanna" version of wartime penicillin served up by academic historians, to have revealed that AN Richards knew all about Merck's dilatory efforts with penicillin for two years but did little to speed it along. (And may have even of dissed it.)

Much better is to say that as soon as Florey first told Richards about the wondrous penicillin, Richards leaps into patriotic action to help Britain (cue The Special Relationship)  and soon the world has penicillin oozing out of its pores....

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