Saturday, January 19, 2013

Eliding chemical synthesis from the Pollyanna histories of Wartime penicillin

Every Pollyanna account of wartime penicillin has much blather on how (Florey) (Fleming) (you add a name) went to this or that firm asking it to grow some biological penicillin only to find much tea and sympathy but no eagerness to help.

"The yield is too small, the active ingredient too unstable and too hard to separate from the impurities" ,etc etc.

The accounts then goes on to say, that despite these doubts, the firms did rally around in an international joint effort (cue "The Special relationship" cliche) and today we have cheap, safe, abundant penicillin produced by biological methods.

*The End* (The peasant girl and her prince live happily ever after.)

But while every single firm did, in fact, say those very things about the difficulties of the biological process, they also said a great deal more besides.

Such as : "the chemists are sure to quickly synthesis such a small molecular weight molecule, just as they have with similarly weighted vitamins recently--- so we can't see investing  in a full scale biological process, only to see all that money wasted when that plant is immediately replaced by a fast cheap chemical synthetic process."

"So the best we can promise is a small pilot biological plant to produce a little penicillin for experimental treatment of a few patients, with the bulk going to our chemist to determine structure and then synthesis. "

This strong emphasis (right from the very beginning) on giving priority to the chemical synthesis of penicillin rather than an all-out effort to improve the biological yields of the penicillium has been elided out of the good-news story of penicillin.

 Partly this is because (a) it failed badly.

But mostly because (b) it delayed for several crucial years the needed research on upping biological yields and (c) prevented the saving of millions dying of wartime infections with the penicillin then-current technology could provide - if governments had wanted it to.

That last point in particular is elided out of existence by the penicillin pollyannas - and rightly so, because what it says about the Allies' behavior on penicillin and the saving of wartime lives is hardly flattering to our cherished collective myths of WWII.....

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